Blow for freedom: Harriet Tubman jazz band breaks genres

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Call it freeing jazz!

A Brooklyn trio named after 19th century abolitionist Harriet Tubman will lead an audience on a musical journey during a late-night set at the annual three-day Bric JazzFest Marathon on Oct. 21. The musicians of the Harriet Tubman trio fuse elements of jazz, rock, funk, and electronic music to form their signature sound, a musical medley that challenges audiences to think outside of traditional genres, according to the band’s drummer.

“If they hear a texture of music that’s not familiar to them, automatically that challenges you to sit there and think, ‘What am I hearing?’” said J.T. Lewis, a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident. “It goes back to the naming of the band — it’s about freedom to think for yourself, cutting the chains from what holds them back to think for themselves. We try to challenge our audience to come along with us — be free.”

The group, which also includes electric bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarist, banjoist, and vocalist Brandon Ross, first joined forces in 1998. Ross, who lives in Prospect Heights, said that the band was inspired to honor Tubman because of her status as a trailblazer and freedom-seeker — qualities they try to emulate through their music.

“I think the relevance, the significance of Harriet Tubman hits on a whole lot of levels,” he said. “But we weren’t trying to make a feminist statement, we were making a human statement, a creative statement.”

The band’s musical influences are too diverse to count, but the members cited Ornette Coleman, Jimi Hendrix, and Derrick May, along with the attitude of the 1960s and the borough of Brooklyn. Ross said that he considers Kings County a transformative place for jazz.

“Brooklyn is the current frontier for jazz, and I think for younger artists, it’s one of the places where they can still live,” Ross said.

Gibbs grew up in Ditmas Park and now lives in Williamsburg, and said that the borough helped him form his unique musical style.

“I’m really a product of the way Brooklyn was when I was a kid,” he said. “My style is very particular, it wouldn’t have came together anywhere else on the planet. There were people from all over the world living there.”

At the Bric performance, the band plans to play tracks from its latest album, including “President Obama’s Speech at the Selma Bridge,” composed by Wadada Leo Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter and composer who acts as the band’s mentor; “Real Cool Killers,” dedicated to crime novelist Chester Himes; and “Nina Simone,” named for the American soul singer and activist.

The three-day JazzFest Marathon, starting on Oct. 19, will feature more than 20 performers, including the Sun Ra Arkestra on Oct. 19, and jazz vocalist Regina Carter singing hits from her latest album “Ella: Accentuate the Positive,” which celebrates the 100th birthday of Ella Fitzgerald.

Harriet Tubman at Bric House (647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, Oct. 21 at 10:15 pm. $30 ($25 in advance). Bric JazzFest Marathon Oct. 19–21, 7:30 pm–midnight.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 5:53 pm, July 9, 2018
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