Jazz lovers waiting for a new recording by piano master Carli Munoz will get a lift for their spirits as well as their ears in this mosaic of message music and joyful artistic play. “These are trying times,” Carli says of this concept album, “and if we can’t be in the front lines we can at least be messengers or instruments of awareness and conscience instead of watching the world as we know it crumble before our eyes.”
Follow Me isn’t the first time that Carli has edged into philosophy in his musical life. His 2005 CD Maverick, heralded for its “informed optimism,” honors others who like himself have done important work by going their own way. One of the living mavericks Carli honored in his liner notes for that recording was Wangari Maathai who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggles against political and cultural odds in her native Kenya to replant traditional forests, strengthen the roles of women, and build democracy. When Carli sent Maathai the CD she responded with a thank-you phone call from Kenya. “At the time I had been also working on the idea for a new song,” Carli says. “This song seemed to me particularly deep rooted and with a strong bass cadence, like big trees with their roots, and as the song was developing I decided to dedicate it to Wangari Maathai.”
Inspired by Maathai’s idealistic legacy, Carli began to ask himself what more he could do to not just see the troubles of the world but take action to make things better. This recording is the answer.
Strangers in a Strange Land – After a bluesy intro on guitar the album opens with a haunting vocal of dispossession and longing for home. Carli’s voice will be a welcome surprise for those who know him solely as a pianist. The pain of his words is real, the voice tells us without flights of artifice but with a deep earnestness that on songs like this heartbreaker out-sings all the wide range in the world. The song’s call for refuge – there must be somewhere for us – sets a dramatic task in a world of increasing physical and social alienation. If you listen closely in the late going, you’ll hear Carli’s improvised truth-telling plaint when he had to be New York and was worried about his wife and daughter back home in San Juan in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Wangari Maathai -- If Strangers in a Strange Land sets a problem, Wangari Maathai brings hope. This flourishing instrumental features Carli’s piano work in a tribute calling the name and lifting the spoken words of the great Kenyan “tree lady” who inspired millions of environmentalists around the globe. The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai taught that we must take care of the natural world that takes care of us, and that a healthy environment leads to a sustainable economy, democracy and peace. French horns start with a fanfare and strings enter to support the words of the Nobel laureate intoned with dignity by spoken word artist Carl Hancock Rux. Enjoying some compositional creativity, Carli has the theme stated in a kind of call-and-response form, with the piano and voices offering the first half of the phrase and the string ensemble completing it as if to say The world needs you and Here I am. A lone woman’s voice calls the name of the hero. Ensemble voices chant her name and then give way to Carli’s piano, at first gentle and rich as if walking alone in the light-dappled forest, then growing in a joyful improvisation that mounts to the theme’s return. Some sweet dialogue between piano and soprano sax follows, and further passages of jungle sounds, chants of the iconic name, and a powerful call to action in Maathai’s spoken words until at last the horn goes off in a parting trill over the chorus calling the name. Carli’s piano wraps it with high farewell notes like sparks of silver flashing into the silence. With a sense of near-reverence, and like ancient poets calling on a spirit to guide their singing, Carli invokes Wangari Maathai for her inspiration to action in a world that badly needs our care.
Hummingbird – How do we follow the example of Wangari Maathai, you might ask, if we’re not a brilliant botanist on a quest to bring back forests? Carli’s final cut on the first side answers that question with a tone poem built on the fable of the Hummingbird. This traditional tale beloved by Wangari Maathai tells of a little “nobody” who takes on a very big challenge against the odds, doing what he can do, no matter how small. After the spoken word delivery of the tale, Carli’s piano work shows us the tiny bird picking up a drop of water at a time to fight a vast forest fire. Back and forth he goes, flying and diving, his flight sometimes fluttering in the ensemble behind the piano that will never give up. But how could that piano ever give up, you might say, when it’s improvising with the rapid melodic instinct and clarity of an Oscar Peterson? There’s an exciting little cameo in the late going by saxophonist Aaron Heick as if he can’t resist getting in on what the piano is doing. Definitely a high point for those who tune into this album to hear Carli play the piano, this track shows off his compositional skills as well in presenting a vision of how we can all take action to save the endangered world. The narrator closes the piece: What if we were all Hummingbirds?
Tujunga Waltz – I used the word “haunting” about Strangers in a Strange Land and it applies again to this song based on Carli’s lyrics of lost love and transcendence. Here again the song form leaves little opportunity for Carli to go off into total piano heaven, but once again too his passionate singing sells the song. The story is simple enough. Man and woman share a magical dance, she’s gone now, but he still has the magic of the dance. Notable musically is the tune itself, which has long been a favorite of Carli’s audiences when he plays it as an instrumental. The sax at one point takes a lyrical break between verses and then Carli goes at it with the right hand to deliver his voice back with the lyric. I can see clearly…, he declares, having found the mystery of transforming love’s sorrow into his own soaring dance above the clouds with the sun, moon and stars in attendance. This move toward universal love reminds us in a new way of Wangari Maathai’s call to take care of the world that takes care of us. Surely a good first step in caring for the world is to love that world, and to love our lives, as this song tells us. It’s not just about an incident of romantic love, but about love itself, as the song says: For love, for life, for all it’s worth…to win or lose, it’s all the same.
Follow Me – Mystery continues in the next song’s call for a return to the deep consolations of nature. Like Tujunga Waltz, Follow Me gives new life to the love of nature at the core of Wangari Maathai’s vision of human communities in harmony with the earth. Exquisite images of natural wonder in Carli’s lyrics – snow caps in blue skies, fireflies, white-maned horses – beckon the singer to night’s spiritual oneness with nature. Follow me they cry, and he passes the call on to us. Compositionally of note is the way the guitar’s role develops. First it simply brings brief changes of voice between verses, but as we move to conclusion it joins with back-up voices singing Alleluia and they build together to wailing big-sound support for the song’s climactic spoken word message that we owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up – like Wangari Maathai and the Hummingbird -- to do all we can.
Tere – True to his legacy as one of the finest jazz pianists of our time, Carli ends this album with some tour-de-force playing in tribute to another powerful woman, and to the passionate exchange of ideas that excites the spirit and inspires action. “It was written,” Carli says of this piece, “…as a gesture of passionate friendship. I had a lady friend, Tere, with whom I shared back and forth many exhilarating and creative ideas.” We can hear a soft intro rising and growing dramatic as the two get to know each other, then the tempo changes as if in the pursuit of ideas, and before long Carli’s gone into full scale string-shadowed improvisation reminiscent of the fluid lacy bop of McCoy Tyner. It’s an uptempo way to end an album that starts out framing a deep sorrow. The messages in-between – doing what we can to help, loving nature and life itself, and living in the passionate exchange that give birth to the new – the messages make a difference, as Carli wants them to.
“I see this recording,” Carli says, “as an opportunity to open hearts, inspire and spread a message of peace and awareness.” Carli’s mosaic message of conscience tells us there is no single prescription for curing the world’s ills, except for all of us who love the world and love life to take action. We can only do what we can do, against the odds, like Wangari Maathai planting hope one tree at a time, like the Hummingbird. But we must do something, Carli’s words and music say, or just watch the world deteriorate before our eyes. “Follow me…,” he sings, beckoning us as his vision of a better world beckons him, “Follow me….”