Burning Ghosts – Burning Ghosts (2016)

Trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom is arguably one of the current leaders of the Los Angeles underground rock-jazz scene that Nels Cline came from when Cline was starting out in the 80s. And as such a leader, Rosenboom makes provocative records, signs risk-taking artists to his Orenda Records and starts bands that push and blur boundaries.

His latest such project is an unruly quartet named Burning Ghosts and on May 6, 2016, their self-titled album (via Orenda) dropped. Pulling together key members of the L.A. experimental jazz scene — Aaron McLendon (drums), Richard Giddens (bass), Jake Vossler (guitar) — Rosenboom was moved by the stories behind the headlines to make this music about the social injustice still raging in America but only recently has recaptured America’s attention.

I may have made this comment before, but making social statements presents a bigger challenge within the realm of instrumental jazz because the sentiment and the message isn’t carried out by words. So, Burning Ghosts compensates for their self-imposed challenge by making the music all the more visceral and raw. Sure enough, Vossler’s guitar on the opening “Anthem” wails off the rails but Rosenboom’s pure, pensive tone on trumpet (and later Giddens) contrasting with the razor blade guitar reminds us that the sentiment is complicated by exhibiting sorrow and discord through jazz and metal rock, side by side.

After a Ornette styled intro, Giddens’ skittish bass shapes bring about a raucous, nervous energy free jazz to “Defiance” as Rosenboom and Vossler spray notes like machine guns and song moves into thrash metal groove. But it’s not all fury: “Elegy”‘s hushed, dark shadings sets the stage for Rosenboom brooding on muted trumpet and “Dissent” Giddens and Vossler have a quiet, spontaneous chat on the front end of “Dissent.” Rosenboom tentatively joins in, making impassioned cries that carry emotion through tone not volume. A march ensure and the tension begins to bubble up from underneath, culminating into a free for all.

Along with the group give-and-take, individual performances say a lot. Rosenboom’s solo trumpet that consumes almost half of “Flashpoint” is expressive, tells a story. After several minutes, a groove springs up around it, and Vossler’s jazzy, fusion-y guitar expression gets increasingly metallic.

“Manifesto” consolidates ideas presented through the album into a multi-faceted epic. It begins with a strident bass walk accompanied by busy, overdubbed horns and overdriven guitar chords, like a psychotic take on “Killer Joe.” But as “Manifesto” starts out so overtly jazz, it morphs into something overtly metal. The energy and the chaos of the jazz carries over, however. It’s here, at the end, where it becomes most clear: jazz, not rock, is the ideal medium for carrying out the message of racial oppression. Because it always has been that way. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in 1939, or Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” in 1959 or Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite right after that, or Miles Davis’ 1971 Jack Johnson soundtrack — which was the first to cast it in a rock-jazz light – makes clear that the tradition goes back generations.

Is Burning Ghosts the ‘Rage Against The Machine’ of jazz? Maybe that isn’t the conscious goal since there are those other precedents; it just seems to be the right time to bring up age-old issues that continue to fester, within the context of music that can match the passion on the streets. But listening to this music leaves the impression that Daniel Rosenboom & Co. wouldn’t shy away from the comparison with that other band from L.A., either.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron