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REVIEW: Jason Moran: The Harlem Hellfighters: James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin at the Barbican

Jason Moran at the grave of James Reese Europe in
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia
Publicity Photo courtesy of 14–18 NOW

REVIEW: Jason Moran: The Harlem Hellfighters: James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin
(Barbican, 30 October 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

A century ago Europe came to Europe, and neither remained the same. James Reese Europe was a star ragtime bandleader from America who signed up to serve in the 15th New York Infantry as a machine-gun officer and bandleader. “My country calls me, and I must answer,” he declared. On New Year’s Day 1918 he and his band landed in Brest, bringing the spirit of New York jazz to war-ravaged France. He was the first black officer to lead troops into No Man’s Land, and the men of the 15th earned the nickname the Harlem Hellfighters.

The Harlem Hellfighters: James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin is pianist, composer and visual artist Jason Moran’s inspiring tribute to this overlooked figure. In an interview with Rachel Coombes for LJN  Moran notes the unique circumstances of Europe coming to Europe with a striking comparison: “It would be like Kendrick Lamar today starting a band and going into a war zone.”

Draped with 369 HQ flags, Moran’s trio, the Bandwagon (with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits) and seven brass and reed players drawn from alumni of Tomorrow’s Warriors, play hard and loose and fiercely—gaily but respectfully. In fact, you’d have to say they’re respectful of the music’s abounding gaiety rather than being glumly reverent about this figure who died tragically at age 39, murdered by his own drummer. They don’t mimic the style, they inhabit it.

The one-hour concert suite steers the fruity ragtime moments into rougher more complex textures. By these alternations the group’s modern style of playing doesn’t get beard-scratching and the melodic tuneage doesn’t get cloying. The brash ragtime bangers move into modern free textures sometimes augmented by electronics. The horns mimicking, or inhabiting, the sound of backwards tape, is a marvellous effect, symbolising our journey back into unknown histories.

“Absence of ruin” is an idea presented Orlando Patterson in his novel “An Absence of Ruins” in relation to how for African-Americans history is constructed differently. The concert serves as a timely reminder of the sacrifices of black servicemen in the First World War (which we have also written about recently reviewing Trench Brothers). We peer into the horror of the trenches during a free jazz freakout with Nasheet Waits whacking a large sheet of metal, then the group jumps straight back to the lively ragtime jazz. Freedom and modernity are appropriate to Europe’s expanded conception of ragtime. He was a jazzer before jazz, and jazz as a music is large, containing multitudes.

Concluding the concert, the band reprise one of the earlier pieces. Moran explains “The music that James Reese Europe played he made more flavourful. One of the pieces was the Russian Rag. A lot of us, when we heard the music, this is the one that just jumped out to us something that encodes what syncopation really means: the anticipation of something better.”

George Cobbs’s Russian Rag, an ‘interpolation of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude’ is full-blooded Cossack energy in ragtime form, a syncopated polka-dotted rag-jazz banger. Europe’s music stands up today. It’s ahead of its time in the energy and freedom of the band’s playing, and in the music’s stylistic playfulness, which is something you associate with younger contemporary players such the postmodern ragtime specialist Adam Fairhall.

Europe’s rambunctious march music is given a 21st-century electronic format offset by footage of poppy fields. Toward the end of the concert, we see astonishing film footage of the lines of disembarking squaddies and the remarkable welcome parade, when 100,000 people turned out to cheer their return from war: “JIM EUROPE’S FAMOUS JAZZ BAND as the 369th reaches the shore.”

While the band vamps, three of musicians move and gather by the piano. The others follow them down while Moran plays softly. They gather round the piano in blue light. They join hands around the orange light inside the piano, like a fire in No Man’s Land. Electronic sounds rattle and sear. There is film of Moran saluting Europe’s gravestone among the white rows of the Arlington National Cemetery. The light inside the piano fades to black.

The Harlem Hellfighters: James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin at the Barbican
Photo credit: Roger Thomas

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.


Jason Moran – composer/arranger, leader, piano
Tarus Mateen – bass
Nasheet waits – drums
Ife Ogunjobi – trumpet
Joe Bristow – trombone
Hanna Mbuya – tuba, bass trombone
Andy Grappy – tuba
Mebrakh Johnson – reeds
Kaidi Akinnibi – reeds
Alam Nathoo – reeds

The Jason Moran: The Harlem Hellfighters event forms part of the Barbican’s 2018 Season, The Art of Change, which explores how artists respond to, reflect and can potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.

LINKS: Jason Moran/Harlem Hellfighters website
James Reese Europe Marches on 18 November at Southbank Centre

Categories: Live reviews

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