Painter, graffitist and collagist Jean-Michel Basquiat was an unmistakable force in New York during the late '70s and into the '80s, certainly the latter decade's first American art stars and one of the art world's first black stars. Initially known by his tag SAMO (referencing both Sambo and "Same Old..."), he was championed by Warhol for his use of street language and vernacular elements in a proliferation of large, abstract paintings. He was also guitarist in the no wave band Gray and a cast member in the projects of Fab Five Freddy and Glenn O'Brien. Despite Basquiat's frequent references to jazz, bassist/composer/painter Lisle Ellis is the first in the jazz world to create an album-length homage to the painter's life and work.
Joining Ellis are saxophonist Oliver Lake, trombonist George Lewis, drummer Susie Ibarra, pianist Mike Wofford, vocalist Pamela Z, and flutist Holly Hoffman. The suite is divided into sixteen parts ranging from jazzical tone poems to electronic splatter and bookended by two vocal pieces. The set is naturally programmatic and almost filmic or theatricalÑsome of it is incredibly dense and other parts are quite sparse. The point of the project is as a springboard, something to be revisited time and again as Ellis solidifies the relationship between the painter's immense oeuvre and his own work. Basquiat's art is best seen in an installation of a number of pieces Ñ they are feisty and often compete with one another, but when done well, the effect is of a landscape more solemn and wistful than jagged words and images might belie.
Ellis' suite is atmospheric even at its most jaunty, the rhythm section keeping a distant flow as Lake's tart liquidity scrapes and scumbles phrases. Arranged sections have a quality of "popping out," much as a knife-wielding stick figure on a canvas. Alternately, the electronic and vocal pieces are slathered on, gestural but not particularly colorfulÑsignifiers of action rather than content. Strangely, text is not obviously integrated into the proceedings, though it might be because the vocal sections are almost overpowering and not entirely convincing. Obviously Basquiat's work has made a huge impact on Lisle Ellis, and it will be interesting to see how he tackles and integrates this subject into future projects.