MICAH ROBINSON - Vocal
DEACON IZZY - Rap
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Michael Bowie: Jazzhead
In Michael Bowie’s classroom, every day is an open-book test. Like any good teacher, he makes the complicated feel simple and brings depth to the rudimentary.
Period 1 finds the Washington, D.C.-based bassist, bandleader, and composer coming of age in and among traditions. Raised by classically trained parents, Bowie crafts himself in real time, even as the strands of which he is composed cast their nets far into the future of what he, himself, will compose. Like a tree craving sunlight, his hands branch out across a range of instrumental terrains—piano, clarinet, and trumpet—but always in search of deeper roots. He discovers that sometimes the most formative learning comes not through instruction but through listening. After a steady diet of Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, and the late Al Jarreau, it’s George Benson who gives him a truer sense of things, and through that discovery becomes aware that the musician and the griot walk the same path.
“I’m a humanist at heart. What compels me is to utilize the gift I’ve been given to tell a larger story. That’s what I want to convey to the world through the music, through my pen, in bringing a sense of hope and unity. That’s the only reason I began doing this.”
Period 2 plants Bowie in the soil of bassist Larry Graham. His feet are already taking in nutrients before his fingers even know they crave the feel of a bass. The electric prince opens to him a kingdom of frequency, the subjects of which inhale the political and exhale the personal. It is here where activism begins to germinate into what will later be his most defining cultural statement yet. It’s a demanding journey, but one that in his lengthening shadow feels inevitable, and which proves that sometimes a line of curiosity is all it takes to find voice in a society droning with prerecorded messages. It’s precisely this quest for truth that earns him a National Endowment for the Arts Award in Jazz Study while in college, under the auspices of which he trains with Keter Betts and Calvin Jones, both of whom get the blood pumping through his physiological arsenal. Armed and ready, Bowie dives headlong into the New York City jazz scene—where he jumpstarts his professional career, sharing stages and studios with Sarah Vaughan, Abdullah Ibrahim, Patti Labelle, Abbey Lincoln, Isaac Hayes, and Manhattan Transfer, among many others—before settling into the D.C. area and crystallizing concrete notions of community in his mainstay band, Siné Qua Non.
“I learned quickly that most great musicians see the bassist as the unspoken “leader” of the group, in that they can change the vibe of a band instantly. It’s the same attribute that made the transition from back to front an easier one. I’d learned so much music from musicians with formidable forward thinking ‘jazz’ minds, and they let me know that it was my responsibility to fully pursue my artistry. Now I know intimately what the phrase ‘to whom much is given, much is required’ means. A tougher road, but it comes with a satisfaction unsurpassed.”
Period 3, then, opens horizons of self-expression that Bowie has kept in check as sideman, but which through his role as frontman achieve a fresh stroke of democracy. Siné Qua Non’s name, a Latin term meaning “essential condition,” cues us in on the chiseling effect with which music has blessed him: revealing a truer form of his spiritual sculpture with every tap of the hammer. Now Bowie blows away the dust to reveal an even deeper version of himself, following as much as guiding. The title of the band’s full-length album, Simple Pleasures, says it all: a joyful appreciation for the little things. As fearless as it is inviting, Bowie’s world actualizes a conscious yet organic attempt to step out of the hall of mirrors that is genre and into a territory without assumptive borders. In this jazzhead’s mental landscape, divisions are nothing less than paving for crossroads. It’s more about blending than transcending, while recognizing the necessity of the past to forge the here and now.
“When you listen to my music, you might wonder where the homage to my jazz roots are within it all. One could simply look through history to examine how the masters took existing music and changed the harmonic and rhythmic anatomy to reflect the times. They did so with a jazz mindset, only to create a song with new life, a new energy. Fast-forward to now, where the sociopolitical climate is likewise rife with overt and undercurrent issues, all of which can bring musicians together to make a positive difference.”
Period 4 is science class, and is where Bowie brews his most insightful concoctions. In service of new directions with established messages, he institutes a new production company, Neo Syndicate, in the grandest tradition of irreverence. With gravity and whimsy in equal measure, he incorporates poignant commentary into the already-salient fabric of hip-hop. For this, he is currently recording a CD, MBowie and the Blast: When We Can Call This Home, and is set to premiere his theatrical concert piece, You Haven’t Done Nothin’, at 2017’s DC JazzFest. With Bowie’s music as its sun, the multimedia planets of this “live video” performance trace thematic orbits of social justice, the human toll of oppression, and the right to protest. Using jazz and hip-hop, dance, and film, YHDN blasts a call for truth in an echo chamber of lies. YHDN examines the civic right to publicly demonstrate, inviting diverse artists and audiences from all walks of life to be part of the musical discourse, and speaks to the importance of accountability. Because, when it all comes down to the wire, you can’t claim what you haven’t done.
It’s a sobering reminder that only when you leave school grounds does the real education begin.