The Harriet Tubman band blows through Minneapolis Thursday at the Icehouse (doors at 5, show at 8)
Harriet Tubman’s cliched label would be “power trio”, but a more apt description is that they behave like a thunderstorm in all its phases. Eerie preambles, with darkening skies, distant rumbles and gusts that lift the leaves on their branches. Intensities which accelerate, where the rumble slams, then trembles in violent climaxes, penetrating the vibrations in the middle of a downpour machine-gunned by ragged lightning. And aftermath where remnants of the assault gasp and sigh, drops intermittently fall from rooftops and trees, gutters gurgle and puddles splash.
The phases are laid out in different ways from song to song, but the organic nature of what Harriet Tubman plays is palpable. Formed nearly a quarter century ago in New York City, the members – bassist Melvin Gibbs, drummer JT Lewis and guitarist Brandon Ross – named their band after the iconic Underground Railroad heroine to that they cannot shirk a goal. Their resumes steeped in a swathe of cohorts that range from the most knotty avant-garde jazz cats to household names like Sting and Tina Turner (with plenty of funk, Latin and metal musical luminaries in the mix as well), they consider the quest for music, personal and spiritual freedom are inextricably linked.
The group, which will play at Icehouse on Thursday night, is made up of strong personalities who can each create a significant musical presence. Ross is a guitarist who can wave, skronk, and howl in a Jimi Hendrix-like way without being a Hendrix impersonator. Gibbs’ beat and pulse on bass can be the beating beat of dub and funk songs, fattening the mix of punk and metal, retaining the agility of improvised jazz. And Lewis is a shape-shifting timekeeper who is at home in almost any setting, who manages to be both reliable and unpredictable in the right places. But every musician also knows that while the middle phase of the storm commands the most attention, its glorious arc requires the help of other phases.
“I wanted a blank canvas where I could put my experiences with Lou Reed and Tina Turner and (glissando-fueled jazz pianist) Don Pullen together,” Lewis said via a zoom call last weekend (which also included Gibbs ), asked about the original look of Harriet Tubman. “I wanted an environment where we could use all of that and the skills taught by our jazz alumni on how to move through music.”
Gibbs took a different approach to sharing a similar sentiment. “There’s this moment in the Pentecostal Church where the woman catches the Holy Spirit but she’s still in her body – she’s accessing two consciousnesses at the same time. For me, that’s free jazz. And for me , that feeling can translate into other types of music, where you step into that turning point. It’s a conscious thing that I’m working towards.
‘A way for terror and beauty to live together in one song’
At Icehouse, Harriet Tubman will focus on songs and music from their last two albums as a springboard for their performance. Not coincidentally, it also encompasses the period when they began to use the ears and judgment of producer Scotty Hard.
“Scotty is more of a conservative,” Gibbs points out. “Let’s say you have 100 works of art, but only 20 of them can be part of the art exhibition. Someone has to decide. In this analogy, the “works of art” are the improvisations that become cohesive enough to be considered songs, or potential parts of songs, when the trio improvise in the studio.Legendary producer Teo Macero filled a very similar role as “curator” of the groundbreaking electric jazz that Miles Davis was creating in the late 1960s.
On stage, of course, these selected songs will be enlivened by other spontaneous improvisations among the band members. Ditto the songs that are pre-composed, as the two Gibbs wrote for the band’s latest album, “The Terror End of Beauty”. The disc’s multi-rhythmic opening composition, “Farther Unknown”, is a tribute to the “pre-ragtime” music of Gibbs’ Gullah/Geechee heritage. And the title track is a tribute to searing jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, a mentor to Gibbs.
Both the album and the song are named after a memorable quote from Sharrock, who said, “I try to find a way for terror and beauty to live together in one song.” This connection and the corresponding ambition are at the heart of what Harriet Tubman is also looking for. In addition to the often beautiful title track, you hear it in the 3-minute doom-metal slab titled “Prototaxite,” full of feedback and the distant sound of electronics mimicking a human scream. You hear it in the winding, claustrophobic path laid out by “Green Book Blues” (named before the release of the infamous “Green Book” movie).
“The rage inside music heals, just like the blues heals,” said Lewis, who ironically joked that there should be an online digital version of a new green book because, like Gibbs joined in, “As black people, we’re definitely back to thinking about the truck stops we’re going to stop at, aren’t we?”
George Floyd was killed on May 25, Gibbs’ birthday. When he visited George Floyd Square that same summer, the peaceful vibe of the place, mixed with public outcry over Floyd’s murder, compelled him to release the album “4+1 Equals 5 for May 25 “, with songs often carried by hope. He has returned to the site a few times since that first visit and will play at a venue less than 3 miles away on Thursday, but is understandably less optimistic about the future.
“I always think about the connection between Reconstruction and Jim Crow. There was a lot of love and desire for change that came out in the aftermath of George Floyd, but I feared the backlash would be as strong as the backlash. As you can see, the font hasn’t changed and not much has really changed.
The most recognizable song likely to play Thursday is a rarity for Harriet Tubman, a cover. Back when Brandon Ross played with singer Cassandra Wilson, they used to duet to Bob Marley’s gripping ballad, “Redemption Song,” doing justice to a composition that tells of being sold as slaves in his opening verse and later asks, “How long they kill our prophets/While we stand aside and watch?
In the decades since Marley’s death in 1981, “Redemption Song” has too often been misinterpreted as a feel-good folk anthem. As Gibbs said, “It had become too familiar and had lost much of its meaning.” On “The Terror End of Beauty,” Ross leads the band on a massive, majestic new release, loaded with angst and perseverance, a howl and a healing that finds a way to put terror and beauty into one song.
“We were looking for a good song that shows how Tubman approaches music,” Gibbs revealed. “A lot of times people hear that we’re a great band, but they can’t quite figure out what exactly we do.”
With a setting like “Redemption Song”, they know.