As its title hints, “Griot: This Is Important!” (HighNote, 2021) by New York-based trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, is the vital jazz album of this fraught moment, a musical document that does no less than unite people of different backgrounds.
Featuring the wise words of some of the finest jazz musicians of all time, Pelt’s new record — and its companion book of interviews — majestically wrestles with such urgent themes as heritage and identity while spinning towards a harmonious future. Throughout, there is Pelt’s trumpet: ever searching, ever shining.
Born in Los Angeles, the forty-four-year-old artist came to the instrument in elementary school and has been telling stories through it ever since. After graduating from the venerable Berklee College of Music in Boston in the late ‘90s, he moved to New York where he soon joined the Mingus Big Band and stood out for his agility on the trumpet and his great respect for it.
On Pelt’s impassioned debut, “Profile” (Fresh Sound, 2001), he entrances on the opener, “Aesop’s Fables” and blasts on late track, “Jigsaw,” just as he does on the twenty albums that have followed. Pelt is indeed staggeringly prolific, having released new music almost yearly, and widely acclaimed, often being compared to late legends like Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard while playing with living ones such as George Cables and Kenny Barron. Not only is it his ingenuity on the golden horn that has set him apart but also his scholarly knowledge of jazz tradition, a combination that comes to wondrous life on his latest album.
Bearing the name of the West African orator who passes down tales from one generation to the next, “Griot” — and its accompanying book, which Pelt self-published and intended as a follow-up to drummer Art Taylor’s revered 1977 collection of interviews, “Notes and Tones” — stretches back to 2018. Around that time, Pelt started recording interviews with such jazz luminaries as Wynton Marsalis and Robert Glasper in an effort to relate anecdotes to those yet born and be a griot himself.
As Pelt says by phone, “When you align yourself with a tradition, then you see that, as a jazz musician, especially as someone who has been passed down a certain amount of history from his elders like I and so many others have, you certainly qualify to be a griot.” The result of his years-long work is a vivid record that preserves the voices of late jazz greats like the pianists Larry Willis and Harold Mabern, while relating the views of contemporary masters such as JD Allen, Rene Marie and Pelt himself.
“I’ve always had a particular reverence towards my elders,” he intones at the start of the album. Snippets of dialogue with jazz musicians in living rooms or on corner stoops segue into interpretations by Pelt and his band of Vicente Archer on bass, Chien Chien Lu on vibraphone, Allan Mednard on drums, and Victor Gould on piano.
Bassist Paul West, for instance, relays his father’s urging of, “Carry Christ Wherever You Are,” which becomes a vibraphone-rollicked, beatific song of the same name just as tenor saxophonist, JD Allen’s, request of younger artists, “Don’t Dog the Source” turns into a drum-rumbled track with that title.
Carrying the Torch
Later, Mabern’s revelation that, back in his day, there was “so little backstabbing” among musicians morphs into the standout track, “Solidarity,” which is as warm as Mabern was in life. More significantly, the song encapsulates what seems to be Pelt’s ultimate achievement: carrying the torch for Black artists’ pioneering work in jazz but also bringing together listeners, regardless of skin color.
Across the album, which recalls drummer Max Roach’s classic civil rights-era record, “We Insist!” (Candid, 1960), Pelt appears to yearn for a vast unification of people from various cultures.
“A lot of times, there are things that happen in this music that are colorless,” he says. “If you’re white, you can experience the same thing. Race can’t be the issue all of the time but, as it pertains to this story, because of a lot of things that do happen in this music that are race-related, that’s more important.”
Pelt continues that his “goal was to bridge a disconnect” that he “felt existed particularly amongst the younger Black jazz audience and the practitioners and the older ones.” He actually initiated discussions with over fifty musicians and, as he explains, “If you read a lot of these interviews, you’ll see that there are a lot more musicians — and all of the musicians that I interviewed are Black — who really embraced the concept of humanism.”
At the end of the album, Pelt asks the current acclaimed trumpeter, Ambrose Akinmusire, “Do you think that there’s an overall relevance of the history of what’s come before?” The musician answers that he does and, as the last song, “Relevance,” proves, Pelt has created something even more unifying than his original aim: a breathing, bopping record that merges the past with the present and the future and one that will move the trumpeters and storytellers to come.
Jeremy Pelt continues to perform throughout the city. Follow him at his website (http://jeremypelt.net/home.html) for further details and more information about “Griot: This Is Important!”
Pelt’s goal was “to bridge a disconnect” that he “felt existed particularly amongst the younger Black jazz audience and the practitioners and the older ones.”