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Mark Lomax II

Stories Across Centuries

By Eugene Holley Jr.

Photo: Jason Wood

The drummer and composer Mark Lomax II honors the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade with a massive, 12-CD concept album bridging centuries of African-American history.

There have been many works in the jazz tradition dedicated to the African-American experience, from Duke Ellington’s iconic Black, Brown and Beige to Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields. But there is no precedent for the monumental, twelve-CD 400: An Afrikan Epic, by the Columbus, Ohio-based drummer, composer, and bandleader Dr. Mark Lomax II.

Comprehensive in its aural rendering of the Black Diasporic experience and compelling in its artistic diversity of expression, 400 tells the sonic story of Black people in the United States from their arrival in Virginia four centuries ago through today; from the roots of their ancient African past and the ruptures of the slave trade and Jim Crow to their resilience and renewal in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and beyond.

Performed principally by Lomax and his long-running cohort of saxophonist Edwin Bayard, pianist William Menefield, and bassist Dean Hulett, 400 also stretches out into harmonically-dense chamber works, with guest appearances by Ucelli: The Columbus Cello Quartet; and members of Lomax’s own Urban Art Ensemble, which includes a string quartet.

Urban Art Ensemble

Photo: Jason Wood

“I’ve done something that very few people have done,” Lomax said by phone from his Columbus home. “And I’ve done it in a way that I was able to control it, to the extent that it is as I heard and saw it. And we did it independently of a record deal, because I didn’t want anybody to have a say in what the narrative should or could be, [as] that could take away from the story itself.”

Lomax has a long-standing interest in the African ancestry of modern music, and the genesis of 400 goes back at least two decades in his thoughts and musical motifs. But it wasn’t until a performance at the Wexner Center for the Arts—a Columbus-based, multidisciplinary art space, where Lomax was then artist-in-residence—that the idea took hold.

“Coming off a successful premiere performance of ‘Song of the Dogon’ [later recorded as the second CD of 400], I was trying to figure out what the next thing would be,” Lomax said. “And then the number ‘400’ just resonated throughout my consciousness. It was the eureka moment, so I figured I had to do something.”

The major themes for 400 initially took shape while Lomax was at work on a symphonic piece in 2016. “When I planned to write the symphony, I thought the natural structure would be ‘past, present, and future,’ because as Stokely Carmichael said, ‘if you start with slavery, you can never rise above it,’” Lomax explained. “I didn’t want to start with that history of trauma. I wanted to start the narrative from a point when we were healthy, happy, and whole. So, I went back to pre-colonial African history, and [then] artistically projected to a time in the future that many have termed Afro-Futurism.”

The work’s epic structure is meant to reflect the centuries-old oral traditions of Griots—storytellers who served as keepers of cultural knowledge in African societies. “One of the central literary devices used by the Griot in traditional African societies was the epic,” the musicologist Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle writes in the album’s liner notes. “The performance of an epic poem could span from two hours up to half a day, depending on what the Griot envisioned and the movement of the spirit. In the case of very lengthy poems, the Griot would divide the narrative into different episodes centered around a particular thematic idea.

“Unlike many Afro-Modernist epics,” she continues, “this composition does not center the historical narrative on the African American experience, but asks the listener to consider what existed before and after the Atlantic slave trade.”

With Lomax acting as producer, bandleader, and engineer, the individual albums that would constitute 400 were created at his home, with a budget of $40,000, mostly financed by several grants, and were recorded across a number of marathon sessions in 2017 and 2018, including one session that produced seven albums in four days.

400 is the sprawling culmination of those marathon sessions. Lomax’s melodious and moving drumming—which conjures Elvin Jones’ riveting, Afro-polyrhythmic pulsations, Max Roach’s bopping brilliance, and Tony Williams’ volcanic power—is supported by Hulett’s bone-deep baselines, Menefield’s McCoy Tyler-indebted pianism, and Bayard’s own takes on Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.”

Each of the 400’s three “narrative episodes” is spread across four CDs. Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us, which comprises the “past” portion of the narrative, contains The First Ankhcestor, Song of the Dogon, Dance of the Orisha, and The Coming, each of which pay tribute to Sub-Saharan African drumming traditions.

“Artistically, I’m trying to find own organic hybrid between pre-composed and spontaneously-composed material, similar to the way Anthony Davis and Renee Baker or Wadada Leo Smith conduct their soundscapes,” Lomax said. “In Songs of the Dogon, the rhythms I play are not specifically African rhythms… I wanted to have creative license with them.”

“In the Orisha pieces,” he continued, “there’s very little composition there, although everything that you hear is guided by something on the page. I don’t use graphic scores, but on ‘Olodumare’ there’s a major scale, although we don’t express this scale.”

Ma’Afa: Remembering to Forget and Forgetting to Remember, 400’s middle section, covers the horrors of New World slavery and its aftermath. Ma’Fa, its opening album, rings with a sorrowful sonority meant to evoke the heart-wrenching echoes of the hull of a slave ship. Up South: Conversations on American Idealism is comprised of two extended tracks of trio commentary on the racial absurdities of the North’s complicity in Southern slavery. Four Women is a tribute, as its name suggests, to four influential Black women: the 17th century Angolan Queen Nzinga, who protected her people from Portuguese enslavers; Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the fearless anti-lynching crusader and advocate for women’s suffrage; the legendary freedom-fighter Angela Davis; and the contemporary Nigerian author and essayist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“They represent archetypes of Black femininity and power in the Black Diaspora,” Lomax said.

400’s closing episode, Afro-Futurism: The Return to Uhuru, foretells the shape of the Black world to come. “The last stage points to where humanity is headed,” Lomax said. “It’s about what it means to be a fully optimized human being, collectively as well as with regards to Africans in America who have slavery in their lineage, and Africans on the continent who are still dealing with the ramifications of colonialism.” 400 closes as it opens: with the sound of a solo drum.

Mark Lomax

Photo: Jason Wood

The musical palette Lomax drew from to create 400 was endlessly broad. “I’ve always been drawn to the music of Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie,” Lomax says, while also citing the influential New Orleans improvisor Edward ‘Kidd’ Jordan.

“Aesthetically, my ensemble freely draws from every aspect of Black music. I’m a preacher’s kid, so I grew up playing in the Black church, [as did] my piano player, William Menefield. My bassist and saxophonist also played in churches. I played rock ‘n roll, and we all played in soul, hip-hop, and R&B groups, and have classical training. Music is just music,” he said.

For Kernodle, who teaches at Miami University in Ohio, this broadness of influence is central to the work’s power and reach.

“I think it is perhaps one of the most modern attempts to contextualize the African’s experience in America,” she says. “His piece follows in the trajectory of pieces like William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, and his orchestral work, Darker America; Florence Price’s Symphony #1, and William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. I think Mark’s work clearly falls in that trajectory, and I think the diversity of this piece separates it from any other thing I’ve ever encountered before.”

Born in Virginia, Lomax moved to Columbus as an infant with his mother, a gospel singer and composer, and his father, an influential preacher and professor of homiletics, whose teachings were rooted in Afrocentric philosophies. Although his parents were divorced by the time he was six, Lomax was able to travel to Africa as a boy, which would complement and influence his early love of the drums.

“As soon as I could walk, I walked to the drum set. I would not suit quietly in church unless I was on the drum set,” Lomax recalls. “I started playing drums in church when I was six, was playing professionally at twelve, and started playing jazz at thirteen, and toured with a gospel group at fourteen.”

Lomax credits his church’s drummer, Harvey West; Dr. Raymond Wise, founder of the Center for the Gospel Arts; and his middle school instructor Robert Carpenter as early influences, along with his high school teacher, Jeff Goff. Lomax later spent two years at Ohio State University, but dropped out to play full time.

Lomax would go on to play with a wide variety of musicians, including Clark Terry, Bennie Maupin, Nicholas Payton, Billy Harper, and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, who hired Lomax in 2004. “Mark has always been a thoughtful individual. He’s very curious about our ancestry, and how that ties into the music,” Marsalis says. “His drumming is very African in its approach. It’s a real spiritual sound.”

And though Lomax says he learned a lot from the road, his return to Columbus offered richer artistic experiences. “It was a great learning experience, but it was not what I thought it would be,” he says. “I guess I had higher expectations of the creative process. But I learned that it was a business, and folks came to see a show. I had a different conception of what that should be, so I came home.”

Back in Ohio, Lomax returned to school and earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition from the Ohio State University. He’s since released forty recordings as a leader, including For Those Who Have Gone, But Still Remain and Drumversations. And in 2017, he served as a Denison University Mellon Artist-in-Residence.

With the experience of 400 now a part of his musical legacy, Lomax knows that his musical adventure through the past, present, and future of Black art music has forever changed him as a musician.

“I’m different now. We’re all changed,” Lomax said. “The experience of recording seven albums in four days did something to us that we’re still trying to figure out. It’s might be akin to people who ride the Tour de France, or run a marathon. You look back and say, ‘I did that.’ And then you feel you can do something else incredible.”

Eugene Holley Jr. writes for Chamber Music, Down Beat, Hot House, Publishers Weekly and Playbill. His work has appeared on NPR: A Blog Supreme, and in Vibe, The Village Voice, and The New York Times Book Review. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware.

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