Moor Mother’s Jazz Codes needs little decodingHannah Edgaron July 6, 2022 at 5:00 pm

Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, has always been one to cite her sources. In addition to performing as a member of Philly-based free-jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements, the contralto wordsmith has frequently paid homage to the jazz, blues, and gospel canons in her solo work, beginning with her 2016 debut, Fetish Bones, and continuing through last year’s Black Encyclopedia of the Air. Ayewa described those canons in a 2021 interview with Pitchfork: “Not only is it Black American classical music, but it’s also a liberation technology.”

Moor Mother’s new album, Jazz Codes (Anti-), is a collage-style tribute to Ayewa’s musical forebears. She conceived it as a companion piece to Black Encyclopedia, and Jazz Codes is undoubtedly the clumsier sibling. While it’s a solid record for Moor Mother novices, and there are plenty of bangers throughout, Ayewa’s verses lack the freshness they have on previous releases—missing are the white-hot fervor and spontaneity of Fetish Bones and the volleying wit she showcased on Brass, her 2020 collaboration with rapper Billy Woods of Armand Hammer. 

Too often, Jazz Codes is blatantly, underwhelmingly on the nose, with heavy-handed samples and stilted lines such as “Be sharp / So sharp. . . . See sharp / Be natural” (from “Ode to Mary,” a nod to jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams). “Meditation Rag” is a particularly sore thumb; its verses SparkNote a century of jazz history with a wink and a nudge. That’s not to besmirch the sonic makeup of Jazz Codes, though. Ayewa has assembled remarkable collaborators: harpist Mary Lattimore, pianist Jason Moran, flutist Nicole Mitchell, and her Irreversible Entanglements compatriots, to name a few. But as far as Ayewa’s love letters to Black American music go, it doesn’t get better than the Brass track “The Blues Remembers Everything This Country Forgot.” That one still gets truer too.

Moor Mother’s Jazz Codes is available through Bandcamp.

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