Essential New Music: Irreversible Entanglements’ “Who Sent You?”

When free jazz first manifested in the middle of the 20th century, it quickly became linked to the fight for civil rights. While framing it in those terms missed a lot of other things that the music had to say, the connection still holds, if only because freedom from poverty, incarceration and arbitrary death is still out of reach, and the music proves uniquely resistant to cooption.

Enter Irreversible Entanglements. Three years ago, the eponymous first album by the quintet—which comprises musicians from Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia—struck with the force of a comet no-one saw coming. The stern voice of poet Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother) rendered the music’s outrage and yearning with unmistakable clarity. But you get to be that surprising once, and Irreversible Entanglements is in it for the long haul. So instead of bowling the listener over, on Who Sent You?, the horns flank you with indelible melodies while the rhythms carry you at triple speed to exactly where you need to be. Ayewa’s voice seems to glide over the top, dropping truth and skepticism and memory with unerring precision, but she’s flying in close formation with the other musician. The fluidity and cohesion with which they throttle back and surge forward will bring you back again and again, all the better to hear the messages imparted by sounds and words. 

—Bill Meyer