Philly bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma on risk-taking, Outsiders Improvised Festival, and the state of jazz in 2018

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Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Jamaaladeen Tacuma | photo courtesy of the artist

While you should listen to jazz every day of the year, April is Jazz Appreciation Month and with it the City of Philadelphia’s Philly Celebrates Jazz, a spotlight on our deep and fascinating connection with the music and culture. This includes lectures, exhibitions, films, and of course live performances. It was all kicked off a week ago in City Hall with the presentation of the annual Benny Golson Award to acclaimed electric bassist and North Philly native Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

Tacuma’s storied career is intertwined with Philadelphia and the jazz scene here. The Thomas Edison High School graduate passed on a scholarship to Berklee School of Music to start playing with local organist Charles Earland and then go on an extended European tour with the great Ornette Coleman and his band Prime Time. This was in 1975, when Tacuma was just 19. He recorded with Prime Time and other Coleman bands for the following decade, cementing his tight relationship with the late saxophonist and his music.

During this period he also was playing with a number of more experimental jazz and rock musicians in the New York Downtown scene, including Bill Laswell and Anton Fier. He released Show Stopper, his first album as band leader, in 1983. In that role, he has put out 17 albums, the most recent being last year’s Gnawa Soul Experience. The list of musicians he’s worked with for the past four decades is as impressive as it is endless.

It’s that level of immersion and familiarity with the music that has culminated in his latest project, the Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival. This year’s edition features three concerts spread out over the month, beginning tonight with a show at MilkBoy with Tacuma’s Free Form Funky Freqs trio that includes Vernon Reid from funk punk band Living Colour and G. Calvin Weston, one of Philadelphia’s most powerful jazz drummers. Sirius Juju – “street bop free punk liberation music” that includes members of the Sun Ra Orkestra – will be opening.

This will be the fourth year of the festival and the first time it’s expanded beyond a single night of music. The second concert will be on the 15th at South Kitchen & Jazz Bar with Jupiter 4, a brand new band made up of Tacuma, Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar, drummer and recent Philly transplant Chad Taylor, who has played with everyone from Pharoah Sanders to Peter Brotzmann, and Alfredo Cohen on saxophone and electronics.

The third and final show in the series is on the 29th of the month in the Ibrahim Theater at the International House. That concert will be a blast to the past with a performance by Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time Band under the direction of Denardo Coleman, the son of the late musician. That ensemble includes saxophonist Odean Pope, and of course Tacuma. Opening will be Cohen’s band Secret Mall and guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer.

The well-dressed Tacuma – he runs a boutique clothing store when he’s not making music – recently talked to The Key about the Outsiders Festival and what he sees as the state of Philadelphia jazz in 2018. Check that out below and go see some jazz this month!

The Key: This year was expanded to three concerts. Why did you decide to do it that way instead of just having one big show?

Jamaaladeen Tacuma: When you are thinking of progression you are also thinking of expansion. It made complete sense that we branch out and reach diverse audiences at different venues, bringing them into our world of improvised and creative music. For example, bringing Nels Cline into South Jazz parlor exposes the South audience to an artist that would not normally be in performance there based on the artist roster that has been featured.

Having Free Form Funky Freqs at the MilkBoy club bridged a gap with a venue that understood where musically we were coming from and introduced us to a new audience, making our audience expand.

Finally, having Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time Band and James Blood Ulmer at the International House offered the perfect setting at a level that is fitting. One person said it is strange and unconventional that your festival is spread out over the month [but] to us it felt natural and organic. Just like the music and are instincts are a bit unconventional, we are not following a program about what a festival is supposed to be or even what jazz is supposed to be.

TK: Do you see this as an alternative to the mainstream of Jazz Appreciation Month? I ask that because looking at the description on your website it says you are promoting “risk-taking, progressive music and groundbreaking artists” through the festival. Conversely, how do you feel it fits into the general mission of Philly Jazz Appreciation Month?  

JT: Yes, I feel as though that it is alternative yet inclusive. As a musical artist who is completely familiar with most musical styles, it was very easy for me to understand what is going on in mainstream jazz. For me it was always natural to do what I do and musically I have a diverse sensibility that never fit into a category or a box. This is perceived as risk-taking, and believe me in the music business it is genuinely risk-taking. It was always about bringing forth groundbreaking musical audio concepts.

The Outsiders Festival allows us to work within that mainstream framework and offer an outlet for those creative musical artists that don’t fit into a commercial category to express themselves in a way that is most often not promoted or not in the forefront. Yet these individuals are the ones who are setting the trends and pushing the envelope in their respected musical styles. For me it’s all about risk taking and getting out of the box, otherwise there is no real development in the art form.

TK: What do you think of the state of Philly jazz in 2018? What does the future hold?

JT: That is an excellent question. Being involved in not only the Philly scene and working on a global level has allowed me to ponder and observe what has transpired, what is current, and where things are moving. It is very important that the young artists look at the current state of the music business and how they fit into it from an economic and creative standpoint. The use of social media, ongoing artist collaborations, and working independently would help them further their vision and help them to create the image and persona that they need to establish themselves worldwide.

The Philly scene is as vibrant and expanding as it always has been: elders are sharing what they know with the youth and the youth are taking things and running with them. That’s how I came up with people like Tyrone Brown, Robert Joel, Odean Pope, and Jymie Merritt among others who were working in the global jazz community mentoring me here in Philly. It all comes full circle – we have to pay it forward.

I think artists and musicians are flocking here to enjoy and utilize what Philly has to offer in not only its historical contributions of music and art but its affordability and supportive community. I feel as though Philly is in great hands right now with The Outsiders Festival, Jam ALL Productions, and The Redd Carpet Room (my fashion styling boutique) providing that special taste that adds to the flavor of Philadelphia’s endless contribution to the world stage and I’m honored and humbled to be a part of it.

Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival kicks off tonight at MilkBoy with Free Form Funky Freqs; it continues at South on April 15 with Jupiter 4, and concludes at The Ibrahim Theater at International House with Denardo Coleman and Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time Band on April 29th. Tickets and more information can be found here.

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