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CD Review: Jeremy Cunningham “The Weather Up There”

By Hrayr Attarian

Jeremy Cunningham

The Weather Up There

Jeremy Cunningham – Drums, percussion, Wurlitzer (track 2)

Josh Johnson – Alto saxophone, keys, bass clarinet

Jeff Parker – Electric guitar

Paul Bryan – Electric bass guitar (tracks 2,4,5,8) synthesizer

Matt Ulery – Electric bass guitar (tracks 6,9,10)

Jaimie Branch – Trumpet

Ben LaMar Gay – Vocals, electronics

Dustin Laurenzi – Tenor saxophone, OP-1

Tomeka Reid - Cello

Chicago Drum Choir – Mikel Patrick Avery, Jeremy Cunningham, Makaya McCraven, Mike Reed

Drummer and composer Jeremy Cunningham pays tribute to his late brother on his intimate and heartrending second release, The Weather Up There. Although divided into ten parts, each with a different title, this sublime work is a single musical unit with a narrative style and a dramatic ambience. Cunningham mixes acoustic and electric instrumentation with voice recordings from family and friends reminiscing about the tragedy that befell them. Hence, he creates textured soundscapes that tell the story of his brother’s senseless murder with all its raw, emotional impact.

For instance, “Sleep” opens the album with a recollection of a dream that their aunt had. There is a wistful serenity to the tune that features saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi’s reverberating, muscular lines that mirror cellist Tomeka Reid’s mournful strings. The somber atmosphere seeps into the subsequent “1985,” a piece steeped in nostalgia and with an expectant mood. Within a synth-dense backdrop, guitarist Jeff Parker lets loose a soulful and melancholic melody. The band’s percolating refrains that Cunningham drives with his polyrhythms coalesce around multi-instrumentalist Josh Johnson’s keyboard vamps.

The grief and the smoldering heartache are reflected in both the vivid colors of the ensemble performance as well as the individual solos. Trumpeter Jaimie Branch wails with passion and dissonant tones, expressing both anger and anguish on the percolating “All I Know” The rumble of Chicago Drum Choir (Cunningham and drummers Mikel Patrick Avery, Makaya McCraven, and Mike Reed) underscores the ominous feel of Cunningham’s father’s words about learning of the killing from the police.

The record also ties in this very personal calamity to the greater social issue of gun violence. “Elegy,” arranged and edited by Parker, is a taped monologue about a family member’s experience of losing a loved one and the overall debate about automatic assault weapon control. The Choir’s percussive rolls and thundering beats ebb and flow poignantly, underscoring different sections of the account.

The author and scientist Aldous Huxley wrote, “What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?” This has often been paraphrased and made into the cliché “all great art comes from great pain.” Although the truth of the latter statement is debatable, The Weather Up There does certainly come from a place of considerable sorrow. It is also a brilliantly creative opus and is a definitive outcry against one of existence’s gravest injustices: untimely and violent death. With it, Cunningham has built a vibrant and lasting tribute to both his brother and, in a way, to all those whose lives were savagely cut short.

To learn more about Jeremy and his project, check out this month's Jazz with Mr. C.

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