From Philadelphia, Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother is one of the most fascinating multi-disciplinary artists to emerge on the contemporary music scene in the last ten years. A poet, songwriter and vocalist, Moor Mother is also a visual artist working through the medium of video and an educator teaching composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. Since her solo début album Fetish Bones in 2016, Moor Mother has been hugely prolific. Releasing three subsequent solo albums – Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes (2019), Circuit City (2020) and Black Encyclopedia of the Air (2021) – she has also thrived on several successful collaborations including Wrecked (2019) with experimental British duo Zonal, Brass (2020) with New York Rapper Billy Woods or Nothing to Declare (2022) with DJ Haram as the 700 Bliss club/noise duo. She is the vocalist for the excellent Philadelphia/New York/Washington DC free jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements and can be heard on several high-profile releases in the last few years by The Avalanches, Sons of Kemet, The Art Ensemble of Chicago or Lonnie Holley among many others.

Initially born as a book of poems paying homage to influential jazz and blues pioneers such as Woody Shaw, Amina Claudine Myers or Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Codes gradually developed into a comprehensive virtual collaboration involving Swedish producer Olof Melander and featuring a vast fellowship of singers, musicians and authors from Moor Mother’s wide network. Released on 1 July 2022 last on Anti Records and embracing the entire spectrum of Black art forms (from spoken word to rap, hip-hop, R&B, soul, gospel, blues, electronic music, sampling and free jazz) Jazz Codes is a complex and timeless collection of tone poems playing like a consistent meditation on contemporary black music. A digital Deluxe edition was released on 19 May 2023 last with 6 additional tracks.

Moor Mother - Jazz Codes (2022)
Moor Mother – Jazz Codes (2022) – Artwork © Anthony Carlos Molden

It’s poetry that drives this album – the stories of these artists and countless others not named but felt – is the leading motivation. I wanted to honour & give offerings – hold them in my body dream with them – send sweetness. Camae Ayewa

The word “Code” can imply either a symbol, a certain rule of law or a message with a concealed meaning. There’s a lot to unpack indeed and perhaps decipher in Jazz Codes and the entire opus has the hallmarks of a giant riddle. Rooted in the Philadephia DIY and a wider jazz and hip-hop scene, this is a record grounded in the oral history of black American music which resonates across possible alternative histories, in true Afrofuturism fashion.

The Philadelphia DIY scene

Calling on a diverse group of instrumentalists and vocalists – from singer Melanie Charles, pianist Jason Moran, singer Wolf Weston, trumpet player Aquiles Navarro, drummer Tcheser Holmes, rapper Akai Solo and Beans to London-based Alya Al Sultani and experimental singer Elaine Mitchener, rapper Fatboi Sharif, Chicago-based flutist Nicole Mitchell, rapper yungmorpheus or bass player Luke Stewart – Moor Mother seamlessly weaves together contributions alongside artists from her own Philadelphia local scene. Featuring established Philly musicians like Irreversible Entanglements saxophone player Keir Neuringer or harpist Mary Lattimore – now based in Los Angeles after spending 13 years in Philadelphia between 2005 and 2018 – Jazz Codes provides a platform to young emerging artists with contributions from singer songwriter Orion Sun, Honeychile and Sovei, psychedelic jazz collective justmadnice or rapper Lojii. The cover artwork also features “Black Unicorn” by self-taught Philadelphian artist Anthony Carlos Molden who uses mixed media and found objects to create paintings and sculptural work.

With the entire record anchored in Moor Mother’s spoken word performances, the poet also calls on a group of authors to contribute such as veteran multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee on “Nation Time Intro”, DC-based author (and Sun Ra scholar) Thomas Stanley on the “Jazz Codes Outro” and even an archival audio extract from jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981) on “Ode to Mary”.

I’m trying to get rid of people’s timelines, to get rid of people’s doomsday calendars

Black Quantum Futurism

Framing the entire record, the track “Umzansi” refers to a traditional war dance associated with the Zulu culture in South Africa which is performed to celebrate the ancestors. Jazz Codes is a celebration of Black musical culture, from the origins of jazz to the present day. But unlike a traditional (western) historical and chronological analysis, the multifaceted narrative is an attempt at “destroying the master’s clock” and acknowledges a cyclical time frame and multiple temporalities. “We are not separated from our past, we are still connected to our ancestors, time is not linear” notes Moor Mother in several interviews.

Jazz Codes therefore plays like a ritual, conjuring the spirit and memory of innovators who have shaped Jazz music as a major art form since it emerged in the late 19th century. Names are simply mentioned or alluded to through songs they are associated with. John Coltrane, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billie Holliday, Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie, Muhal Richard Abrams, Amiri Baraka, Julius Eastman, Woody Shaw, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cab Calloway, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Nat King Cole, Tina Turner, D’Angelo, Albert Ayler, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Nina Simone, Sun Ra, Betty Carter, Willie Dixon and Sonny Rollins are all namechecked. So do much lesser-known musicians like pianist Amina Claudine Myers or early pioneers of the genre such as acapella Gospel ensemble the Fisk Jubilee Singers (first established in 1871), ragtime pianist Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917) or cornetist Buddy Bolden (1877 – 1931). Even the short Jazz Codes film suggests additional visual references.

This approach chimes with the Afrofuturistic cultural aesthetics which have gradually emerged in the last fifty years, spearheaded by novelists like Octavia Butler (a major acknowledged influence on the music of Irreversible Entanglements) and musicians like George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Lee Scratch Perry or Sun Ra. In 1968, the latter moved with several members of his Arkestra to a house in Morton Street in the Germantown neighbourhood of Philadelphia and stayed there until his death in 1993. Sun Ra has left an indelible mark on the city’s cultural scene and his historical home, now referred to as the Arkestral Institute of Sun Ra remains in the custody of current Arkestra leader Marshall Allen. The spirit of Sun Ra reverberates throughout Jazz Codes and “Noise Jism”, the only instrumental track on the album is an homage to his early experimental and modal improvisations for electronic keyboards.

Elaborating on contemporary Afrofuturism, the Black Quantum Futurism collective is a major side project for Moor Mother and community activist Rasheeda Phillips. “Exploring the intersections of futurism, creative media, DIY-aesthetics and activism in marginalized communities”, the Black Quantum Futurism collective promotes various experimental writing, visual art and music projects, publishes books and zines and organises workshops.

Let your imagination lead you […]
It knows everything you don’t know yet and can’t be aware of
As our common reality unfolds linearly
Quantum, black in the moment
Listen to your body deeply
Quantum, black in the moment
It holds the time and memory of all your mothers and grandmothers before
Quantum, black in the moment
And they have been everywhere you will be and have been
And so there is never a wrong place or time for you

Jazz Codes film – Umzansi / Thomas Stanley Jazz Codes Outro / Noise Jism / Woody Shaw / Woody Shaw live jam / April 7th / Barely Woke

Free Jazz as a “liberation technology”

Moor Mother breaks down that linear temporality by interweaving free style poetic narratives, elaborating on the magical artistic influence of past and present musicians on her own art, delivering a social and political commentary on contemporary American society, racism, gun violence and police brutality or interrogating dreams and creativity.

I call free jazz a liberation technology, and it’s very essential to anything that I make. It has to have that conductor running through my music for it to be successful, or for me to get across the point that I want to get across.

And if Jazz is the subject matter of the record, a running improvisational commentary on flute, trumpet, saxophone or piano provides the common thread binding every section together. Free Jazz becomes the “Liberation Technology” unleashing the magical past, present and future interconnectedness within Jazz Codes – a profound writing, mixing, mastering and creative masterclass.

Now jazz jumps up like Lazarus if we allow it
To rediscover itself as a living music
A subversive suture of inner movement, fertility, tension, and release
Released now from the prison bars of metrical stability
And the black and white keys of chromatic incarceration
Swing becomes a quantum oscillation of adventure