Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century

harjoJoy Harjo & Poetic Justice
Silver Wave Records

by Thomas Rain Crowe

As a highly acclaimed poet who has been playing the sax for only about nine years, Joy Harjo is one of the instrument's rising stars. In her lyrically driven narrative poetry, Harjo's use of jazz music (whose origins, she notes, are partly American Indian/Muscogee as well as African) is not something she uses in a poetry-starved culture to be hip, but rather an inherent part of a traditional heritage which does not segregate music, storytelling, song and dance. When she comes together with five other musicians of various tribal affiliations to make Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, she is doing what comes naturally, both in terms of her mytho-poetic ear and her sense of life-in-community.

Following the lead of Jim Pepper, Harjo mixes American Indian, African, and jazz rhythms to create her own unique, if soft-spoken, brand of music. And with the spoken lyrics of her poems sensitively interwoven with the percussive, reggae/rock, and jazz arrangements on this recording, she has put herself in the company of only a few contemporary performers who have dared to wander into the uncharted wilderness of "spoken-word & music"—such artists as Laurie Anderson, John Trudell, Jim Morrison, Kat Onoma, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and (in his own way) Leonard Cohen. While few of these artists work, as Harjo does, in a primarily jazz medium, and while most (with the exception of Anderson) play little, if any, of the instrumentation, they do define the genre of "spoken-word & music" that is slowly making its way into the mainstream of American recording. Letter is thus a good introduction to Harjo's talents both as a poet and a jazz musician. In pieces such as "Promise," the rock and reggae conjunctions find a perfect balance for Harjo's lyrics about creating an equation for the velocity of love in relation to the speed of light. In the title track, the ethnic focus becomes more African with a hint of Chicago blues, with Harjo playing all-out on both soprano and alto saxes. But it is in the pieces "The Real Revolution Is Love" and "For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash" that Harjo really asserts herself as a player, with steady, deep licks that recall the Eastern influences in Charles Lloyd's recent recordings. Throughout the CD, Harjo and her band are consistent, strong, and above all, evocative.

Letter is among those performances that distinguish themselves as being firsts—a good beginning. What we want to know now, with this first horse out of the gate, is how far and how fast will this red horse go?

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998