The Racism Rhumba

Strange Meeting
Antilles : 1987

Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Melvin Gibbs, electric bass; Ronald Shannon Jackson, drums.

We’re writing this post in the aftermath of New York City’s latest racially charged judicial debacle. We were planning on posting something from Powertools anyhow, but the trio’s political tracks flared up with an added urgency. “Howard Beach Memoirs” revisits the infamous winter 1986 hate crime where a mob of racist Queens thugs assaulted three black men and killed one of them. Several defendants received light sentences and the rest were acquitted. The photo above immortalizes some charming Howard Beach locals shouting obscenities and epithets at civil rights leaders marching against racism.

“The President’s Nap” turns out to be an all-too-correct assessment of Reagan. But the phrase also applies to Prez Bush who continues to sleep his way through various national and international crises. Wonder what he dreams about? Perhaps because these two protest tunes don’t sport lyrics, they still sound ferocious and relevant. That’s also partly due to the finger-in-the-socket interactions between Jackson, Gibbs, and Frisell, which are never less than riveting. Witness the compelling lurches of “Howard Beach” as the trio builds to a blistering and unstable climax. It’s a shame this eccentric supergroup only made one studio album.

The aggro-sludge guitar attack on “Nap” also serves as a potent reminder of Bill Frisell’s heavy metal chops, and how he used to routinely scour the enamel off listeners’ teeth. (For more recent work in a heavy and metallic vein, check out Frisell’s contributions to Earth’s excellent “The Bee Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull” on Southern Lord.)

As for the occasionally hackneyed ’80s production effects and flourishes — you’ll have to listen past those. At least some things have been left behind.

Category Powertools

8 Responses to The Racism Rhumba

  1. Good to see reference to this album, which all these years later remains a favourite of mine. As you say, Frissell could really burn, sigh. The 80s production effects never struck me, will have to listen again to check that out – maybe I have a slight blindness to that – I was only talking yesterday about Jon Hassell’s City: Works Of Fiction being a desert island disk when someone remarked they had a similar aversion to its production.

    And Ronald Shannon Jackson, of course.

    I think there was a second incarnation of Power Tools with Pete Cosey, but they didn’t release anything. Might be wrong about that.

  2. Yeah, there is a live cd I ordered directly from Shannon Jackson’s website a couple months ago which is a live version of this group. The cd says Pete Cosey and David Gilmore on guitars. Pretty different stuff than the studio album, but essential if you are interested in Pete Cosey or David Gilmore.

  3. This reformed Power Tools sounds interesting. I only know Gilmore from his stuff with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements (e.g. ‘Black Science’), which is pretty different to the sort of harder-edged stuff I associate with 80s Frissell and with Pete Cosey. I always wondered what Cosey had got up to since leaving Miles (apart from that Children of Agharta tribute group). What does the album sound like?

  4. Those 2 tracks are probably my favorites from the album; a lot of it doesn’t sound good to me. I’d thought maybe the problem was that Shannon-Jackson was having a bad day, but now I’m thinking is that what makes a lot of it feel wrong is that the bass and drums are playing really hard but the guitarist really isn’t; he’s just got the volume cranked up. I suspect Cosey might have been a better fit (there was also a trio with Vernon Reid not too long, although that apparently wasn’t given the Power tools name. I’ve never heard it, but I think Reid played best – hardest – with the Decoding Society).

    BTW that title makes me think of a tune Mel Brooks said he wrote for Your Show of Shows, but Caesar declined to use, for some reason: “Pick up the rag/ Throw it in the shul/ It’s the antisemitic polka!” Good stuff.

  5. So anyway, I pulled the record out, and I think what mostly bugs me is that the bass has a really hard time playing in time on the tunes where he’s supposed to (unlike the tracks here), in addition to what I mentioned before. So I’m getting about a 50-50 split between good stuff to enjoy and bad stuff to ignore.

  6. Hello guys… I cannot download these tracks form the link. Could you please check that the link is OK? Many Thanks from a biiiiiiiiiiiiiig fan of your blog.

  7. Tracks have been fixed here. Should be downloadable. Sorry about the problems.

  8. Anyone reading this far should seriously check this out:
    Some deep memories recalled for our benefit by the producer of Strange Meeteing.