Photo: Eleonora Cerri

Roots Magic is an Italian quartet: Alberto Popolla on clarinet and bass clarinet, Errico DeFabritiis on alto and baritone saxes, Gianfranco Tedeschi on bass, and Fabrizio Spera on drums. For three albums now, all on the fantastic Portuguese label Clean Feed, they have been engaged in a unique project, interpreting black music from two sources — free/avant-garde jazz of the 1960s and 1970s, and Delta blues of the 1920s and 1930s — while occasionally adding an original composition to the mix.

Their debut, 2015’s Hoodoo Blues & Roots Magic, set out the terms of their mission quite clearly. It opened with a version of saxophonist Julius Hemphill‘s “The Hard Blues,” and followed that with an interpretation of Phil Cohran‘s “Unity” and John Carter‘s “The Sunday Afternoon Jazz and Blues Society.” The album also offered versions of pieces by Sun Ra (“A Call for Demons”) and Olu Dara (“I Can’t Wait Till I Get Home”), but two other tracks showed not only the other half of their vision, but the connecting lines between. They recorded versions of Blind Willie Johnson‘s “Dark Was the Night” and Charley Patton‘s “Poor Me” that were stunning in their stark power.

Their nearly seven-minute take on “Dark Was the Night” began with an extended bass solo, accompanied only by sparse percussion and a few shaken bells. It wasn’t until the piece’s halfway mark that the reeds came in, DeFabritiis’s alto hoarse and crying in a manner somewhere between Joseph Jarman and Peter Brötzmann, with Tedeschi bowing deep drones behind him and Spera’s drums a tumbling, tympani-like earthquake accented by massive cymbal crashes.

Their second album, 2017’s Last Kind Words, was a little more raucous at times, but dug deep into the groove, too. “Oh Hush,” an original based on a Charley Patton composition, was a strutting free-jazz-funk piece with an almost carnival-esque energy, somewhere between the Art Ensemble of Chicago‘s “Théme de Yoyo” and Sons of KemetThe title track starts out as a graveyard rite featuring clarinet and droning bowed bass, not unlike their take on “Dark Was the Night,” but eventually becomes a howling storm of sound. It was originally recorded by Geeshie Wiley in 1930 or ’31. (If you’ve never read this amazing New York Times story, go do that and come back afterward.)

They tackled more Charley Patton songs, too, including “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” “Tom Rushen Blues,” and another version of “Poor Me.” Those were juxtaposed against Julius Hemphill‘s “Dogon A.D.”, Marion Brown‘s “November Cotton Flower,” Hamiet Bluiett‘s “Hattie Wall,” Roscoe Mitchell‘s “Old,” and Henry Threadgill‘s “Bermuda Blues.” A few guests contributed here and there: Luca Venitucci (who’d also appeared on the debut) played piano and/or organ on four tracks, Luca Tilli played cello on two, and Antonio Castiello added “dub effects” to the Threadgill piece.

Their mission and philosophy was crystal clear at this point, and it was becoming fascinating to listen to their work, which drew vivid connections through the continuum of black music in America, while adding something all their own to it. Roots Magic were never attempting to re-create the music that inspired them; they were re-interpreting it in their own style, radically reshaping it while honoring the creative impulse that had caused Brown, Hemphill, Bluiett, Threadgill et al. to draw from and warp traditional forms in the first place.

On their third album, the quartet have expanded the scope of their project yet again. There are no original compositions on Take Root Among the Stars, which takes its title from a phrase by the late science fiction writer Octavia Butler. (Butler is also a strong inspiration for flutist/composer Nicole Mitchell, and for poet/electronic musician Moor Mother; the latter has spoken and written consistently about using recordings and writings from the past as time travel devices.) There’s another Charley Patton tune, “Mean Black Cat Blues,” on the album, and a version of Skip James‘ “Devil Got My Woman,” as well as pieces by John Carter, Ornette Coleman, Phil Cohran, Sun Ra, Charles Tyler, and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre (“Humility in the Light of Creator”). Eugenio Colombo plays flute on one track and bass flute on another; Francesco Lo Cascio plays vibraphone on one track and gong on another; and Spera has added zither to his drum and percussion work.

The version of “Devil Got My Woman,” which opens with a two-minute bass solo on which Tedeschi’s harsh exhalations are audible between notes, is monumental. When the horns (all low-end: bass clarinet, baritone sax, and Colombo on bass flute) come in, they have the roaring, squalling energy of a Peter Brötzmann/Mats Gustafsson collaboration, and Spera’s drumming is a massive thumping attack. At the five-minute mark, though, everything stops and the frantic, Mingus-meets-Hemphill riffing is replaced by droning, meditative long tones, as hand percussion takes over from kit drumming. It’s slow and patient, but never even slightly soothing. This is intense music.

Ornette Coleman never recorded “A Girl Named Rainbow” himself; he gave it to drummer Andrew Cyrille, who put it on his album Special People, with Ted Daniel on trumpet, David S. Ware on tenor saxophone, and bassist Nick De Geronimo. As always with his compositions, it’s immediately recognizable as his; the melody is a rising fanfare that then descends in a bluesy flurry. Roots Magic take it apart, picking through the melody slowly and cautiously, like archaeologists disassembling a pile of bones, but managing to keep the essential vitality of Coleman’s music.

This is a powerhouse album; it swings ferociously hard, and throbs like a whale’s heart. The core concept behind Roots Magic was intriguing at the beginning, and even as a one-off would have been worth checking out. Three albums in, it’s obvious they’re really onto something, drawing connections that should have been clear long ago (and were — see the Art Ensemble of Chicago‘s motto “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future” or Charles Mingus calling a composition “Folk Forms, No. 1” or all the other avant-jazz artists and groups who’ve drunk deep of the past) and turning it all into a mighty roar with, yes, some real magic behind it.

Phil Freeman

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