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The remarkable thing about Reginald Cyntje’s Rise of the Protester is its thoughtfulness. The long history of jazz as protest music has always trended toward overt displays of anger, sadness, and/or bitterness—intensity, in a word. What’s more, Cyntje plays trombone, whose slide and big bore lend themselves to violent outburst as much as the subject matter does.
But no: Cyntje is an artist of philosophical musings and careful constructions, and he approaches his themes as such, even when the titles augur otherwise. “Chant of the Revolt” has a stomping Afro-Caribbean rhythm (a constant, though usually subtle, presence here as in all of Cyntje’s music) and an upbeat, martial melody that seems destined to go aggro; instead Cyntje plays ponderous long notes in his solo, then switches to danceable rhythmic motifs, and tenor saxophonist Brian Settles does the same in his solo. The same duo takes the helm on “Dance of the Crooked Heads,” and instead of getting caught up in bassist Herman Burney and drummer Lenny Robinson’s frantic swing tempo, they stand against it, as if trying to rein it in—ditto for their determinedly melodic turns on the tune’s reprise.
Even “Duality of Malcolm” trades not on fire—the song’s title, a nod to Malcolm X’s public persona—but on a mellow, sardonic folk form. That said, it’s suspiciously similar in that regard to Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” not least in Burney’s hard-plucked bass solo—putting it squarely in the protest-jazz tradition after all.
Rise of the Protester finds Cyntje heading a lean ensemble. By the time of his last album, 2015’s Spiritual Awakening, the Reginald Cyntje Group had grown to seven members: the sound was lush, but also carried power. If Protester’s two-horns-bass-and-drums lineup sacrifices density, it gains directness, sending messages that have fewer obstacles or intermediaries to outflank. “Green” finds Settles able to express his solo in velvety low tones; the spare funk groove of “Duvernay’s Direction” gives Cyntje space to build dynamics, from a quiet prowl to one of his few genuine blasts.
“Duvernay’s Direction” also serves notice of the album’s broad definition of the word protester.
“Protesting comes in many forms,” Cyntje affirms in his liner notes. “Music, film, books, marching, teaching, and voting.” Hence filmmaker Ava DuVernay gets a spotlight. So does Ta-Nehisi Coates in “See Ta-Nehesy,” a portrait of grim determination driven by a smart bass hook.
That said, an awful lot of the record rests in the typical “march-and-shout slogans” conception of protest, from “Chant of the Revolt” and the mournful “No Justice No Peace” to “Blues People vs the Deplorables,” on which Cyntje and Settles trade argumentative barbs, turning the heat up every now and then but tempering it with in-the-moment melodic craftsmanship. That’s the other remarkable thing about Rise of the Protester: It operates in short statements. “Araminta,” its furtive opening glance at Harriet Tubman, is by far the album’s longest track, at just under seven minutes. Striving for nuance usually elongates rather than shortens. But Cyntje, like so many protesters, isn’t providing answers—just questions.