Mourning [A] BLKstar
Veteran Cleveland poet, composer, and bandleader RA Washington has long been a seeker, a visionary musician with little regard for stylistic boundaries. More than two decades ago he co-founded the punk jazz trio Vernacular, which has only recently gotten props for the groundbreaking hybrid it served up, while more recently he dropped a sprawling mash-up of free jazz, soul, spoken word, noise, and gospel in his duo project with Jah Nada of Obnox. But his most prolific project has been the remarkable collective Mourning [A] BLKstar, a multi-layered modern soul and R&B group that nonchalantly collides passionate delivery, head-nodding grooves, and avant-garde production.
The juggernaut has been quiet of late, but between 2016-2020 it dropped a mind-melting slew of shape-shifting albums culminating in the 2020 instant classic The Cycle. The open-ended songs are brought to life by a dynamic crew of vocalists that allow the band to change its texture and tone from song-to-song, with modern soul verities spiked with free jazz and gospel. The album was made prior to the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, but when it arrived in the summer of 2020 it felt like it was designed for those cataclysmic events. Beneath imploring, richly layered voices, stuttering beats, and punchy horns is a steady stratum of grime that imparts a powerful tension. This is emancipatory music, and we hear and feel the struggle.
The Wire Magazine picked The Cycle as the third best album of 2020, writing, “It’s the kind of music made for the frontlines of a protest, a theme that reoccurs throughout the album, notably on the neo-soul groove of ‘Whom The Bell Tolls’ where we are greeted with the affirmation to ‘Hold on, rise up and stand our ground.’” Mourning [A] BLKstar will also serve as Lonnie Holley’s backing band for his Big Ears set this year.