Heroic jazz legacies looking to the future

Philly jazz album double review: THE UNIVERSE IS WITHIN WHO by Spectral Forces, and The Lighthouse by Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Odean Pope

5 minute read
Black & white outdoor photo of the black-hatted musicians playing, bending over keyboard, drums, and upright bass.

January saw the release of two adventurous new albums by jazz groups in Philadelphia: THE UNIVERSE IS WITHIN WHO by Spectral Forces and The Lighthouse by Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Odean Pope. Both center collaboration between local friends who lead prolific individual careers, but the albums offer contrasting views of jazz, past and future.

Tacuma, who composed most of The Lighthouse, has spent decades playing electric bass in local and international bands, and he regards Pope (18 years his senior) as a “mentor” since the 1970s. Pope, a propulsive tenor saxophonist, bandleader, and collaborator with Max Roach and John Coltrane, founded jazz education initiatives at Philadelphia’s Model Cities program and Settlement Music School (I currently work part-time at the latter), and in 2023 he earned the Nova Award for lifetime achievement from Ars Nova Workshop.

For Spectral Forces, THE UNIVERSE IS WITHIN WHO serves as a debut, but this trio sounds just as fearless as their more experienced counterparts. Commanding synthesizer and spoken-word components come from Alex Smith, known locally for his work as a critic, sci-fi comicbook author, and curator of events at the Rotunda in West Philadelphia. The band also features upright bassist Pete Dennis, a regular in Philly pop and improvised music who calls Pope and Tacuma two of his biggest heroes, and drummer Julius Masri, a multi-instrumentalist practiced in jazz, metal, punk, and traditional Arabic music—Masri played percussion alongside Tacuma in a performance by Philly Improv Society (presented by Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival) at the Paul Robeson House in June 2023.

While THE UNIVERSE features Smith, Dennis, and Masri on every track, The Lighthouse presents a rotating, intergenerational cohort of players on various paths through Pope and Tacuma’s orbit. Tacuma planned the project after he earned a 2022 Art Works grant from Forman Arts Initiative in partnership with the Philadelphia Foundation (the grant also supported the Robeson House concert), taking the “opportunity to gather seasoned musical icons and the ‘next generation’” in one studio to carry on the legacy of our region’s funk and cosmic jazz past. New York keyboardist Marc Cary plays a prominent role in the record’s texture, as well as Philadelphia drummer G. Calvin Weston, who has accompanied Tacuma in older bands led by Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer. Their backbeat grooves underpin improvisations by Pope on tenor, younger Philadelphian Paul Giess on trumpet with electronics, and another young ally, Ru Deep, on electric guitar.

The Lighthouse honors styles from solid funk on “Mr. Silk’s 3rd Base” (named after an old West Philly nightclub on South 52nd Street) to electric bass-heavy swing on the title track and dark fusion on the closer, “Evolution of the Black Mind.” The chordless trio version of “Jump Street” (saxophone, bass, drums) dances faster and wilier than the version Weston and Tacuma played together on Coleman’s 1982 record Of Human Feelings. On “Odean’s Soliloquy," the selfless Pope takes the mic for a toast, announcing, “I’m here walking on Jamaladeen’s shoulders! [I’m] so blessed to be in his generation.” But Tacuma begins the next track (“On Your Shoulders”) with the rejoinder, “We are definitely on your shoulders.” They chant “on your shoulders” together, celebrating years of exploration with so many bands in their past, foretelling future expeditions for their younger bandmates, whom Tacuma calls “emerging stars.”

A mashup image with a colorful magazine-collage style at left; solemn yet fun photo portrait of Pope & Tacuma at right.
At left, Spectral Forces album cover. (Art by Alex Smith.) At right, saxophonist Odean Pope and electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. (Photo by Sound Evidence).

On THE UNIVERSE, Spectral Forces’s arrival sounds like celebration and prophecy too from the opening crash of Smith’s synthesizer. Their approach includes more improvisation, disharmony, and athleticism—the record’s first two tracks, “Everyone in Outerspace is Gay” and “I Have a Boyfriend Witch, Their Name is Turbotron,” make 22 minutes of continuous music, churning and raging. The trio recorded in 2023 at Delaware County’s Red Planet Recording with engineer Bruce Howze Jr., tracking everything rapidly with minimal overdubs, keenly evoking the raw character of their live sets. Bass and drums come through dry while the synthesizer soaks in surreal effects, like on The Lighthouse. Some synth elements rush forth like steam from industrial pipes, others like missiles whizzing past our ears (“Let’s Get Timpanic Tonight”).

Smith, often raising his voice to a scream on stage or on record, spins through lyrics that accentuate the group’s peaks and dips, detailing visions detached from time (“nitroglycerin incense / papier-mâché rose petals stitched in glamorous origami from a Teen Titans comic book”) and occasional narrative passages (“we meet in trash-strewn alleys / his rubbery skin exposed in twilight / his Che Guevara tattoo animating in the near dawn golden hour”). Dennis and Masri display incredible stamina—both drummers, Masri and Weston, cite dense patterns like punk and metal “blast beats.” But my favorite Spectral Forces performance comes on “Birds Too,” the quietest, most consonant, and final track, when Dennis picks up the ney, a wooden wind instrument, while Masri bows the kamancheh.

In stylish, fanciful suit jackets and bowties, the musicians play on a small stage with a brick wall to the right.
Odean Pope (left) plays with Jamaaladeen Tacuma (center) and drummer Nazir Ebo in 2022 at North Philly’s South Jazz Kitchen. (Photo by Sound Evidence.)

Both THE UNIVERSE and The Lighthouse claim foundations in tradition, and both honor ancestors on a first-name basis. On “Dear Friend (For Pharoah),” Pope and Tacuma lay a tender groove in tribute to their collaborator Pharoah Sanders, the beloved tenor saxophonist who passed in 2022. And on “Dirge for Kuwasi (Hotep_),” Spectral Forces salutes Kuwasi Balagoon, the queer Black Panther, New Afrikan anarchist revolutionary, and writer who passed in 1986. “Kuwasi was/is a figure that a lot of queer Black radicals invoke, he’s our avatar in a lot of ways,” says Smith. “He was bisexual and did the damn thing, so encountering homophobic rhetoric in Black activist and poetry and music circles, he was an essential figure to remind folks of.” In their words and spirit, the two records carry heroic legacies into the present, and they reaffirm the potential for intergenerational, uncategorizable collaborations in Philadelphia’s future.

The Lighthouse came out on Friday, January 19, and is available via bandcamp. THE UNIVERSE IS WITHIN WHO came out on cassette and bandcamp on Saturday, January 20, when Spectral Forces hosted a release concert at the Rotunda with locals Ishtar Sr., Vitche Boul-Ra, and the 52nd Street Planetary Ensemble. Spectral Forces returns to the Rotunda for a Friday, March 1, show. Tacuma will bring his Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival back to West Philadelphia in the summer of 2024.

At top: Spectral Forces live at Weirdo Oddfest 2023 in North Philadelphia, presented by Fire Museum. (Photo by Richard Stankiewicz.)

What, When, Where

The Lighthouse. Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Odean Pope. Released January 19, 2024. bandcamp.com.

THE UNIVERSE IS WITHIN WHO. Spectral Forces. Released January 20, 2024. bandcamp.com.

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