Jazz with Mr. C: Within a New Album and Concert, Jeremy Cunningham Has a Heartfelt, Urgent Message

Updated: Feb 7

By Jeff Cebulski

Jeremy Cunningham (photo by Jacob Hand)

I can’t pretend

that I’m whole

anymore

I was split in two . . .


—from a poem written by Jeremy Cunningham


My hope, is that the music I wrote for my brother will have an impact on people’s perception of loss, and help rally the public into fighting for gun control laws in this country. . . . My hope is that this album can reach people and help call them to action.


—Cunningham, from media notes about his new album The Weather Up There


The melding of music and emotive experience has produced some of the greatest aural moments in history. In the world of recorded jazz, there are several such examples.


John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme carried a spiritual pathos that resonates with listeners to this day. I think of Pat Metheny’s poignant testament to found and lost love, Secret Story. Then there is Charles Lloyd’s opus, Lift Every Voice, his reaction to the events of 9/11—gathering some of his favorite musicians in the studio and playing meaningful standards and contemplative originals as a solace to the surrounding angst.


But sometimes there’s more involved—an undesired but palpable double consciousness—as people become inextricably intertwined with social-political issues that emerge from cataclysmic events.


In 2014, saxophonist Jimmy Greene created a musical statement following the tragic murder of his daughter Ana in the Sandy Hook shooting. Beautiful Life became a testimony to Greene’s faith and the difficult memory his faith helped him to grapple with. On the album, Greene chose not to address the evident weapon issues surrounding the incident, instead using his platform to represent the theme of love he believed his daughter would have wanted him to express.


More recently, the recordings of Ambrose Akinmusire include tributes and allusions to victims of unconscionable urban violence.


Now, in 2020, Chicago-based drummer Jeremy Cunningham will release his own musical representation of and reaction to similar trauma, having to live with the memory of the brutal death of his brother Andrew in 2008 at the hands of robbers equipped with AK-47s, who sprayed the fatal bullets in his home. On The Weather Up There, Cunningham chooses to include voices of people directly affected by this violence and its ultimate effects, putting the inevitable and understandable trauma up front in order to make his own point about gun violence and the results thereof.


One could understandably think that musicians have used their playing, composing, and recording as forms of therapy. In Cunningham’s case, though, his percussive expression and the new album’s compositions are not therapeutic, but rhetorical and cathartic: “I think the drums are expressive of course, and perhaps there is some catharsis, but that’s not what drives me. . . . No, this album was not a form of therapy. I want things to change in our country.”


The project began as a personal reaction, but not as music. “The Weather Up There started as a series of poems,” said Cunningham, “that I wrote about how my brother’s death affected my life. It helps me to write creatively so I can see where my feelings lead, and get a sense of what imagery is playing out behind the scenes of my every day. Soon, I realized that my reflection wasn’t enough. . . . ”


Cunningham began by contacting people who were impacted by Andrew’s murder, recording the phone conversations, some of which make it into the album. Then he sought out friend and fellow percussionist Mike Reed, whose questions helped focus Cunningham’s vision for the project.


“I often bounce ideas off of Mike because I have a tremendous amount of respect for his aesthetics and his work. I’ll never forget what Mike said to me: ‘When your daughter gets a little older, what will you tell her about your brother? How he died? Or will you tell her lots of stories about him?’ From that moment forward my focus shifted on telling the story of my brother’s life through all the big memories I carry, so that when I confronted the loss of his life, it would be defined. It would have a deeper meaning.”


Reed ultimately had a presence on the recording, being part of a “Chicago Drum Choir” consisting of Mikel Patrick Avery, Cunningham, Makaya McCraven, and Reed. The Choir provides dramatic and visceral underpinning to guest Jamie Branch’s dissonant phrasing in “All I Know,” a recollection of that fateful night from Cunningham’s father; and on “Elegy,” featuring the voice of Cunningham’s then-girlfriend Lauren and the mixed, sometimes opposing reactions of friends and family, providing a context of emotional complexity.


Andrew and Jeremy

And that complexity, in real life, was exacerbated by forms of associative dissonance. In a document shared with media, Cunningham explained:


My family was left in shambles. My father was more or less slowly departing from everyday society. . . . My mother . . . moved to Oklahoma in the midst of all the grieving. . . . I bombed my grad school audition at Manhattan School of Music. A few weeks later, Lauren and I broke up over Spring Break.


I tried to hold myself together enough to graduate from the music conservatory, which I did. And then, a few months later, I was diagnosed with early stage testicular cancer. Luckily, I caught it early, and surgery was essentially curative.


2008 is easily the worst year I ever hope to live through on this earth.


Nearly twelve years later, Cunningham has righted himself with the help of this impressive excursion, which will be celebrated with an album release concert at Constellation on Saturday, February 22. The concert will be augmented with portions of recorded audio interviews and with videos created by experimental artist Kim Alpert, who traveled to Cincinnati with Cunningham to document scenery and locations referenced in the album.


“The album release show will stay true to the album,” Cunningham said. “The recorded interviews I conducted are just as important as the music itself. Without that, listeners wouldn’t get the perspective from various people who were affected by the gun violence that claimed my brother’s life. We’ve played the show a few times now, and each time we are all getting more comfortable creating the sound of the album for live performance. Our recent two performances, [at the] Chicago Jazz Festival and NYC Winter Jazzfest, have solidified the music and our approach.”


Key to this effort are the musicians Cunningham chose. “I only write music for specific musicians,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing it any other way. My music has always been deeply personal and there are only so many musicians I trust. [Guitarist] Jeff Parker is a great friend, and he is someone I look up to. Paul Bryan is an amazing bassist and producer that has helped me see the value in only adding what’s truly needed to a song. [Reed player and keyboardist] Josh Johnson is a musical brother that became a close friend and collaborator from the moment we met in Chicago; his skilled musicianship continues to inspire me to be better at my craft.” Added to his band for this effort was noted bassist Matt Ulery, whose playing on some of the more reflective pieces—especially the conclusion, “He Pushes Up (and Leaves His Body)”—provides solid, sensitive support.


It was Parker’s presence that I first noticed, his electric expressions painting evocative images on pieces like “1985,” Cunningham’s warm remembrance of childhood with his brother and parents; “The Breaks,” with faint grinding and rock-like strumming that serves as a dramatic segue between moments of disbelief (“It’s Nothing”) and the inevitable passing of time that dulls memory (“Hike”); and his fractured, reverbed picking on the title cut, communicating a mood of uncertainty, or perhaps flickering recollections, as Cunningham explained.


“‘The Weather Up There’ started simply enough from a childhood memory. My grandmother, Opal, used to help me climb the trees in her backyard by setting up an aluminum ladder. There weren’t any low hanging branches, so this was the only way to climb those old, tall trees. Once I got high enough, Opal would call out, ‘How’s the weather up there?’ And I would always respond with a chuckle and say, “just fine, grandma. Just fine.” I wrote that tune because I still can feel the presence of my relatives that have passed, from time to time, like some warm glow. I thought that it also made a good title because the title sort of implies a wonderment of what is out there when a person slips through the veil of the living.”


Jeremy Cunningham (photo by Kim Alpert)

But, in a second album hearing, I noticed the juxtaposition of Johnson’s alto, providing a yin-yang of sorts with Parker—a symbolic representation of the emotional teeter-totter (especially on “Hike” and “He Pushes Up”) the album tries to evoke.


“‘He Pushes Up (and Leaves His Body)’ is focused on the moment my brother Andrew left the world. I used to have this dream where I could see my brother lying in the floor, after he’d been shot. He’d be lying there so scared and alone in one moment, and then the next he’s pushing himself up out of his body. He looks down at his lifeless body, and then the room around him, before walking towards a door filled with light. He pushes open the door, walks out of our world.”


As for Cunningham, he pragmatically sees his role as “the composer, and leader. Jeff and Paul helped me expand my concept and bring my vision into focus. We are all instrumentalists, but our most important roles for this album were to make sure each song was compelling and that the whole of the album formed a narrative.”

To this outsider, though, what he provides, ultimately, is a pulse—it’s not only his music but also his life that remains after his brother’s was taken away.


“I can’t reclaim my brother’s life. But I can play for him and try my best to tell his story in the hopes that maybe, just maybe someone will listen and get what I’m trying to say.”


Cunningham’s album release concert at Constellation will be on Saturday, February 22, beginning at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 pre-show, $20 at the door. www.constellation-chicago.com


Click here to read a review of The Weather Up There.

"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at bullski@hotmail.com.


Jeff Celbulski







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