Heroes Are Gang Leaders is a New York-based, 12-musician ensemble that was formed in 2014 by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and tenor sax player James Brandon Lewis to celebrate the poetry of the late Amiri Baraka (born LeRoi Jones, 1934-2014). But it is more than a tribute project of the great Afro-American poet but an inspiring celebration of the Great Black Music (a concept coined by the AACM – The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), that adopts the revolutionary, outspoken yet uplifting spirit of Barka.
«LeAutoRoiOgraphy» is the sixth album of this ensemble and it was recorded live at the Sons D’Hiver Festival in Paris in February 2019. Heroes Are Gang Leaders feature now in addition to the poetry of Baraka the poetry of Ellis and fellow poets Randall Horton and Bonita Lee Penn, recited by them and sung by three other vocalists – Nettie Chickering, violist Melanie Dyer and pianist Jenna Camille. The ensemble is rounded by bassist Luke Stewart, alto sax-synth player Devin Brahja Waldman, trumpeter Heru Shabaka-ra, guitarist Brandon Moses, and drummer Warren «Trae» Crudup III.
French poet and writer Alexandre Pierrepont mentioned in his liner notes that Baraka’s tongue was, «sometimes a hammer, sometimes an anvil, sometimes a sickle, sometimes just a breath or a blast». A poetic work that «makes absolutely everything a target and that liberates what it touches». Heroes Are Gang Leaders charge Baraka’s poetic lyrics with inspired and soulful anthems and stories, spiritual and passionate free jazz, deep funk and heavy, swinging grooves.
The performance begins with «Amina», dedicated to Baraka’s wife, poet-actress-author, with «Forensic Report», both distill the ensemble’s layered and emotionally intense aesthetics, referencing history, music and poetry with calls for social justice and change like «Nation Time!» Ellis’ «The Shrimpy Grits» reminisces a late-night dinner with Baraka while «LeAutoRoiOgraphy» relates to Baraka’s youth in Newark Hill and concluded with the poet’s sober realization that «If capitalism won’t kill me, racism will». The mournful but soulful «Mista Sippy» offers Baraka’s own version of «Strange Fruit»: «Some people like to drink the whole river, but what if the drinkers could drag the whole river? … Some people wanna watch the whole lynching». This spellbinding performance ends with Baraka’s poem «Sad Dictator (I Wanna Make Freedom)», calling for justice and social change in the United States and in solidarity with the Third World and another testimony to the most humane spirit of Baraka.
Now, as Pierrepont advises, it is time to come back to yourself. «Resist. Everything remains to be done. You know what to do. One, two, three…Open your ears».
Thomas Sayers Ellis (bandleader poet), James Brandon Lewis (ts), Luke Stewart (b), Melanie Dyer (viola, v), Nettie Chickering (v), Jenna Camille (p, v), Randall Horton (poet), Devin Brahja Waldman (as, synth), Bonita Lee Penn (poet), Heru Shabaka-ra (tp), Brandon Moses (g), Warren «Trae» Crudup III (dr)