In their most recent release, “The State of Black America,” The Mark Lomax Trio uses jazz to discuss the progression of black America. Led by drummer Mark Lomax II, the trio explores the issues of identity and the place of African Americans in American culture.
“I used the limbs of African American issues to make a comment on what I think is a universal issue,” said Lomax. “I see it as the role of the jazz musician to make a statement — to say hey, this is where we are and this is what we can do to get to that next place.”
Lomax is also a composer and a Ph.D. candidate in cultural ethnomusicology at Ohio State University, so it is no surprise that he has a lot to say.
“The State of Black America” was inspired by Lomax’s educational hurdles. Within his program, Lomax fought to be taken seriously when he wanted to create a doctoral thesis based on the legacy of black music. He felt that he had to fight for the relevance of his race and culture, and it was during this time that he started asking questions about his identity as an academic black musician — how could he compose music for a black audience, with a purely European-American education?
The pieces did not add up.
“African American music, jazz in particular is an extension of the real tradition of West Africa,” said Lomax.
He said the oral tradition connects spirituals and blues to jazz and that “without jazz we wouldn’t have hip hop, RandB, folk.”
He said that for him, it was impossible to ignore this fact.
Lomax sought to honor America’s musical heritage as a whole while commenting on today’s black America. He feels that 40 years after passage of historic civil rights laws — even with a black president — African Americans still need to find their place as cultural leaders in the U.S.
As an educated black man, Lomax says he finds himself often at odds with racist stereotypes.
“If you’re black, you’re a rapper or athlete or you’re actor,” Lomax says. “We don’t know our black mathematicians, or our black teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, professionals. We don’t have a balanced image of black America.”
To explore this through jazz, Lomax relied on the help of a few friends: Edwin Bayard on the tenor sax and Dean Hulett on bass.
Lomax ran into Bayard in a jam session in the 1990s and was drawn to his sound — he said as soon as he heard him he knew that they would make great music together. The pair began playing with Hulett in 2000, who Lomax calls “the reincarnation of Charles Mingus, melodically and rhythmically.”
“I’ve never heard a bass player like that before,” Lomax says. “The way he thinks; the way he hears.”
With more than 10 years of history, there is a great deal of trust between the trio and every song is a group collaboration. Lomax, as a composer, creates the concept and finds a sound which he describes to the Bayard and Hulett, then lets the music lead the conversation.
“Even though I might write all the music that we play,” said Lomax, “I try to work in the old tradition where a cat will bring in sketch of what he wants and then we kind of just go over it once or twice. For this record we only rehearsed for an hour and a half, because I wanted it to be fresh when we got to the studio, I didn’t want it to be worked out and perfected because that’s not real to me.”
There are five songs on the album, “Stuck in a Rut,” “The Unknown Self,” “The Power of Knowing,” “To Know God is to Know Thyself” and “Blues for Charles.”
The first four songs discuss Lomax’s struggle for identity and acceptance and the final is a tribute to his father Charles and explores the special moments that only family can provide.
The overall sound is powerful, and the conversation is shared equally between the three. The album cover opens with a summation of the sound by Berklee School of Music professor Bill Banfield.
“This album is the kind of piece we’d hope for, that continues and draws from the best of great creative jazz traditions that redefined jazz, sound artistry and definitions of new music,” Banfield says. “It’s a big bold adventurous sound with personality, integrity, soul and ‘follow me because we love playing and giving music.’ ”