Review Summary: compressor
Preceded by the irreverent work of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, and continued in more ordained and organized form by Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones), BAM or the Black Arts Movement, became a home for some of the fieriest political poets of America of the 20th century. Its long and storied analects, deeply enmeshed in the Civil Rights Movement and the country’s ever-unsettled racial divide, spanned the best and most affected works by the likes of Nikki Giovanni, Yusef Komunyakaa, Askia M. Touré, Sonia Sanchez and amongst a multitude of others, Jayne Cortez.
Army brat, sociopolitical spitfire, and ex-wife to free jazz visionary Ornette Coleman, Cortez kicked off her writing career in ’69 with the collection titled Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, and from then, would go on to publish a dozen poetry books, along with setting her words to fusion jazz with the Firespitters ensemble. Maintain Control, their fourth LP, feature among many Harlem luminaries, Denardo Coleman, her son with Ornette Coleman, on drums. Denardo, whose very first recorded stint was the much reviled Empty Foxhole that his father recorded when he was just a kid, is on firmer and older ground here, laying down the backbone of the LP, which throbs with acrimony and inequity.
Maintain Control touches on most every issue that was rattling America, just as the 80’s were coming to a stormy close. Dialing back somewhat on the aspects of race and the black id, Cortez’ words instead give way to paranoia over a looming nuclear conflict, ecological fallout, cynically- and economically-motivated war and a slew of other grievances that still haunt the continent as 2019 plods along. Early mentions of climate change, especially given how dated the record is, surface on the self-titled opener. Economic Love Song skewers the wealth gaps that separate the country’s racial garrisons, and from there, Cortez proceeds to recite herself drunk, tackling domestic abuse in impoverished neighbourhoods, CIA wiretapping, Chernobyl, the state of poetry and a host of other controversies that by now, have become standard fodder for downtuned white liberal outrage. The Firespitters provide exuberant backing to the operation, melding and playing around with Cortez’ brassy delivery, by turns, coasting on her brazen voice, then thundering to the front, as the going gets hot.
Plenty of Maintain Control reaches for and stylishly gets to preaching ground. Time has a cauterizing nature, and the steadfastness of the country’s division carries a de-amplifying angle to it. So in modern context, a lot of this anger has atrophied to little more than a dull roar. But all these things considered, when Cortez’ flippant and combustible alto yells in the ear how everything is wonderful “under the urination of astronauts, and the ejaculation of polluted sparrows,” before the Firespitters thrust the song into avant-jazz madness, you might just feel that this pulpit is worth kneeling for.