Follow-up to the band’s celebrated 2013 debut features
bassist Keith Witty, saxophonist Christophe Panzani,
drummer David Frazier, Jr.
Mike Ladd, Gaël Faye and other poet MCs appear, with pianist Aaron Parks & original Thiefs member Guillermo E. Brown expanding group’s sonic parameters
Hailed by The New York Times for its “startling mash of natural and synthetic, resonant and fractured,” and by JazzTimes for “transcending the concept of idiom altogether,” Thiefs returns with Graft, an evocative odyssey informed by jazz, hip-hop, electronic, experimental music and more. The subject matter, so pertinent in this political moment, is identity, dislocation, migration, and otherness. “‘Graft’ is the idea of being augmented, stripped bare, transformed by cultural experiences, by places, by the movement of people,” bassist and co-leader Keith Witty explains. “It refers to the mixing of roots, sometimes violently, sometimes quietly and unremarkably.”
Saxophonist/reedist and Thiefs co-leader Christophe Panzani elaborates: “From the violence of the cutting of the branch, and that inflicted on the host by this forced addition, is born a new, unexpected, previously unheard-of element. The botanical analogy applies to human destinies.” Given this, the introductory leadoff track functions as a subtitle for the album as a whole: “The Limbs They Acquired Over Years and Continents.”
To the band’s instrumental core of bassist Witty, saxophonist Panzani and newly recruited drummer David Frazier, Jr. (each credited on electronics as well), Thiefs has added the riveting hip-hop poetic verse of Mike Ladd and the Parisian-Rwandan Gaël Faye, with poet MCs Grey Santiago and Edgar Sekloka appearing on the panoramic “Beat One.”
Original Thiefs drummer/vocalist Guillermo E. Brown, an unforgettable presence on the group’s eponymous debut, returns for the eerie and adventurous “Anthro.” And the acclaimed Aaron Parks, on acoustic piano but also a bit of Butterfly Wurlitzer on “Beat One,” brings Thiefs’ orchestrational concept to the next level, playing a subtly coloristic role on six tracks.
Graft is the end result of a 2015 residency Panzani undertook at L’Arsenal, a performing arts center in Metz, France, near the German border. “I wanted to do a project with Thiefs featuring some poet rappers,” Panzani recalls. “I zeroed in on the idea of déraciné and re-raciné — ‘uprooted’ and ‘re-rooted’ — and the way people and populations get shuffled around and become different. I wanted to offer that topic to these poets, and use it as a compositional framework. We did the residency, everyone you hear on the album was there, and we all had the feeling that this was too good, that we had to keep it going.”
The band members embodied the very concepts they were exploring: “We scanned the room,” says Witty, “and realized that everybody in this band is a transplant, everybody is mixed. I’m the Irish Jew in New York, Christophe is the Italian in France, Gaël is the Rwandan in France, Mike is the black American living in Paris.” Panzani adds: “Each member of the group has family histories of displacement, so it was easy for everyone to jump into this subject and be very personal and honest.”
In some cases the poets were given specific ideas that would guide or inform their original lyrics: “With ‘I Live in Fear,’ I templated it, I said, ‘This is how I want it to go’,” Witty remembers. “Even just the opening line, ‘I Live in Fear,’ I wanted it to be a clear, openhearted statement of terror regarding one’s otherness in society… not even about why, just what it feels like.” Ladd’s cool, offhanded delivery and striking sociopolitical reference points mark him as “a jazz musician of words,” as Witty calls him. “A lot of poets use jazz frameworks but Mike is the only one I know who’s a real improviser and that’s his strength. I think he’s our greatest living jazz poet.”
Witty and Panzani each wrote roughly half of the compositions on Graft. One hears a rhythmic hybridity that speaks to the album’s theme of dislocation. Texturally, the mix of electric and acoustic, with jazz trio ensconced in a larger and less familiar grouping, makes it beguiling and uncommonly ambitious.
After the polyrhythmic pulse of the opening “I Live in Fear” comes the rock-like energy of Panzani’s “Fields,” which Ladd devours. “Mike is a rock poet too,” Witty notes. “He’s got a lot of punk rock influence. And if you dig into those lyrics about the displacement of the African diaspora, the list of slave ports at the end — he really delivered the song to its most potent conclusion.”
The three-part “Pas d’ici” (“not from here”) came about via the Metz residency. “We wanted to make good use of the ensemble and its versatility,” says Witty. “We made sure to switch the duets up: nobody could get too comfortable with their duo partner.” Four or five variations in the live setting proved too much, so they were narrowed to two: one between Faye and Frazier, the other between Ladd and Aaron Parks. “Mike being the total abstractionist that he is, he and Aaron did a full-on improvisation,” Witty marvels. “Those words had never been spoken before.” Part III, coming at the end, is finally the trio itself, pointing toward at least temporary closure.
Panzani contributes the slower, woodwind-enhanced “I.W.B.A.H.” and the rhythmically multilayered “The Leaf Node,” reinforcing the botanical imagery of the theme. The leaf node is the start of the vein network in a leaf, its irrigation system. Faye’s accompanying lyrics relate to being a boy growing up in nature, a theme he explored in his well-known young adult novel, Petit Pays (“little country”), recently a bestseller in France.
These references deepen the fundamental inquiry into our basic humanity expressed in Graft. As Sekloka sums up so eloquently in “Beat One” (translated from the French): “Infinite miscegenation … I will become that thing tomorrow, that I do not know today… identity is in motion… identity is a movement.”
JANUARY 26TH, 2018
SOURCE: Fully Altered Media