Album review | Brian Settles & Central Union’s Secret Handshake: Jazz illuminati

Brian Settles' new album cements his identity as a force to be reckoned with in this generation of musical innovators. Giovanni Russonello/CapitalBop

by Luke Stewart
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The debut album of a jazz artist marks the beginning of a visionary journey. After years of recording as an exciting sideman and performing in varied situations, D.C. tenor titan Brian Settles has released his debut as a leader, Secret Handshake.

Settles is known to many D.C. jazzheads as an alumnus of the esteemed Duke Ellington School for the Arts, one of the more exciting soloists in the now-defunct Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra and a former star of straight-ahead jazz at JoJo’s on Thursday nights. Settles has another side. After graduating from Duke Ellington, he enrolled at the New School in New York City, where he was exposed to the avant-garde-leaning “downtown scene.” Performing in experimental situations with soon-to-be luminaries such as bassist Tom Abbs and drummer Chad Taylor, he had the chance to explore a different approach to the Music. There is no exclusivity or cut-and-dried dichotomy here, however.

Taking both approaches has helped Brian to become a more complete musician; his bop performances have a strong sense of originality and taste, while his avant-garde performances exude the level of freedom and technical awareness which is required to make that approach worthwhile and palatable. All of it contributes to his ability to express broad concepts with top musicians, be they in New York’s downtown scene or D.C.’s U Street clubs.

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Brian Settles & Central Union – “Zui Quan”
[audio:|width=200px|titles=Zui Quan by Brian Settles & Central Union]

On Settles’ debut release, he names his group “Central Union,” a sign of reverence to his grandfather’s church, the District’s historic Central Union Baptist Church. “In the church, they say the doors of the church are open,” Settles told me during an interview on WPFW. On Secret Handshake, he said, “the band is the community, and the community is larger than just the gentlemen on the record, but we’ve all been friends for a long time.”

The album’s title foreshadows an intense creative work. The first tune, “Bison,” plods along with a bouncing feel led by D.C. native Corcoran Holt on bass, enhanced by drummer Jeremy Carlstedt’s pseudo-Afro-Latin groove. The disciplined rhythm section stays the course, intensely implying extra grooves between the lines – an exercise in the genius of minimalism. Above it all, light melodies from Brian’s saxophone and Neil Podgurski’s piano playfully weave together.

“Zui Quan” follows, named for the Mandarin Chinese name of the folkloric Drunken Boxing style of Kung Fu. This track is in line with the practice’s teachings: The odd time signature creates a broken sway within the ensemble, but the rhythms and execution are deadly precise. Carlstedt creates a backbeat that will make the listener want to nod her head, only to find the rhythm suddenly switching emphasis. The groove is indeed neck-breaking. The song’s intensity builds from the very bottom, beginning with only piano and saxophone stating the rhythm. Before the end we are found in the midst of a free-jazz explosion, Holt’s bass keeping the steady broken-beat feel behind the ecstatic phrasings of the ensemble.

The title track, “Secret Handshake,” uses a familiar format from the free-jazz canon: It is mainly a duet between Settles and Carlstedt, à la the legendary “Interstellar Space” duet between John Coltrane and Rashied Ali, only this one is enhanced by some tasteful percussion work by Jean-Marie Collatin-Faye. “I [wanted] to branch out into some of the later periods of jazz like the ‘60s and ‘70s and beyond, [when] you heard a lot more tenor-drum duos,” Settles said. “Archie Shepp and Max Roach come to mind, and even Coltrane and Rashied Ali. That’s a big part of my understanding of the Music – was through those records…. I added percussion to really intensify the rhythm.”

“Anti-War March” is comprised of a 12-bar phrase, the last measure being silent – making it sound like a series of sentences, as if the ensemble is engaged in an eerie chant. Settles dons the soprano saxophone on this tune, weaving melodies into the dirge, but always coming back to the rhythm. The ensemble stays relatively calm relative to the busy collective improvisation expected on a “free jazz album,” but the intensity is ever-present in the continuous rhythm and disjointed harmony.

“Earth” is very much a soundscape tune, reminiscent of early AACM recordings by Roscoe Mitchell or Anthony Braxton, in which sparse improvisation is the means by which the ensemble conveys its message. Settles’ soprano, along with Holt’s bass and Podgurski’s piano, mimics the fauna while both percussionists seem to evoke the sounds of the wind rustling against the flora. The result is a lush sonic exploration, complete with the peaceful serenity of a virgin forest and the intensity of a violent thunderstorm on an open plain.

“Soulnimsky” (no doubt a nod to Russian-American composer Nicolas Slonimsky) is almost an addendum to “Earth.” As the one ends, the other picks up on its feel. A listener would almost make the mistake of hearing the same tune, if the instrumentation were the same. On “Soulnimsky,” Settles rejoins his tenor for another furious exploration with drums and persussion. This one, however, is much more angular than “Secret Handshake” and its down-home Sheppisms; more emphasis is placed on the percussion work of Collatin-Faye.

“Gardenia” is a beautiful ballad that effects a sudden change in the mood of the album. Coming after two intense explorations, it is a surprise from the first note. By the second, the tone of Brian’s tenor in conjunction with the ensemble has grabbed the listener. This is where the rich warmth of the group really shines, its melancholy energy reminiscent of the love scene in a French film noir. It is no surprise that the tune was inspired by Billie Holiday.

“It was one of the first tunes where I sat by the piano and tried to sing and accompany with chords,” Settles said. “It was around the same time my wife was researching for a lecture about Billie Holiday … and that was the energy around that time. It was my attempt to write a ballad in the Ellington style…. I always fantasized [about being] a vocalist on my horn, so I wrote my own [melody] and tried to sing it on my horn.”

The album ends with the tune “Grandmother Tells of Africa.” The instrumentation is again stripped down to soprano, accompanied by drums and percussion. In step with a traditional African rhythm, the drum creates the low-end pulse for the foundation, over which Brian’s soprano creates a deep feeling of reverence for the ancestors.

Central Union recorded its debut partly in an opera singer’s rehearsal space, a perfect place for an intensely expressive saxophonist like Brian Settles. The mix at times places him a little lower than required, however. The widely varying songs make for an awkward flow, but one which grows into itself the more the album is heard. Overall this album marks a great testament for a musician who has the ability to be completely original in multiple approaches to the Music. It is not too much to say that the jazz world finally has a modern-day Archie Shepp, one who is intensely steeped in the jazz tradition, both “inside” and “outside,” and is moving the Music forward.



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