With an outstanding movie now out that has just received a slew of Oscar nominations to go along with its other plaudits, the fascinating autobiography of Solomon Northup is garnering some very well deserved and long overdue attention from the general public. In this case however, jazz cognoscenti can look at all of this Northup hype and say, “where y’all been?” For the jazz world paid a very impressive, albeit unheralded tribute to 12 Years a Slave back in 2008, with Follow the North Star an album by saxophonist T.K. Blue.
In 2007, Mr. Blue (aka Talib Kibwe) received a commission from the NY State Council on the Arts to compose a suite dedicated to the early African-American presence in the Hudson Valley area of New York. His research led him to 12 Years a Slave and Northup’s amazing story. Mr. Blue then composed a jazz suite as a musical retelling of Mr. Northup’s journey. The suite, titled Follow the North Star, was recorded in the fall of 2007 with Blue being supported by some of New York’s finest jazz musicians including Onaje Allan Gumbs, Steve Turre, James Weidman and Essiet Okon Essiet. The finished album was released in 2008 0n Blue’s JaJa Records Label.
Musically, Follow the North Star is first-rate straight ahead jazz, with a few quasi African embellishments such as Mr. Turre’s famous shells and Mr. Blue’s very competent work on the kalimba. Mr. Blue’s compositions are extremely strong and the group of committed musicians make it work. This music grabs you with equal parts of ecstatic joy and heartbreaking pain. As I wrote in Jazz Improv Magazine at the time of the album’s release: “Mr. Blue takes us on a wordless but yet richly satisfying journey through Northup’s life, from his ancestry to his return to his family, making all of the painful, harrowing, and joyous stops in between… I found the music to be most compelling when listened to from beginning to end, like a symphonic movement…” (Jazz Improv, July 2008). But in spite of the high quality of the music, Follow the North Star made barely a ripple, even with the jazz buying segment of the population.
So with interest in 12 Years a Slave and Solomon Northup running at an all time high now, it’s a good time for jazz fans to revisit this excellent but virtually ignored work of art. The CD is available from CD Baby and the mp3 version from Amazon.com. For more information on T.K. Blue, who is also the chairman of the Jazz Studies program at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, you may visit his website at http://www.tkblue.com. You may also want to check out some of Mr. Blue’s other fine albums, including 2011’s LatinBird (Motéma) and his brand new self released album, A Warm Embrace (CD Baby).