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Muldrow performing in Oakland, California, in November 2019.
Muldrow performing in Oakland, California, in November 2019.

Opinion I A Janus-faced genius of modern jazz

Georgia Anne Muldrow (aka Jyoti) is a modern-day jazz genius. In multiple avatars, she composes and performs different styles with finesse

Charles Mingus, the late great bassist, bandleader, and one of jazz’s most influential figures, is sometimes referred to as Janus, the Roman god shown as having two faces —among other things, he stands for duality of personality. That’s because of the diversity of styles that Mingus straddled: On the one hand, he combined all the elements of traditional jazz with blues and gospel to create bebop and hard bop compositions but, on the other, he broke down old conventions and composed and played in free and avant-garde styles. That is the sort of duality you find in the music of Georgia Anne Muldrow.

It may be blasphemous for many jazz purists to see similarities being drawn between Mingus, one of the genre’s most towering personalities, who died aged 56 in 1979, and a musician such as Muldrow, born in 1983, but there are many reasons for it. Most prominent is her interpretation of Mingus’ compositions. In 2017, Muldrow, a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer, was commissioned to do a concert at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center. It was called Muldrow Meets Mingus and it involved several other musicians. To get a taste of what it was like, you can sample two tracks from Muldrow’s latest album, Mama, You Can Bet!: Beemoanable Lady Geemix and Fabus Foo Geemix. These are her interpretations of Mingus’ Bemoanable Lady and Fables Of Faubus.

Muldrow calls her interpretations (or remixes) Geemixes, and those little spelling changes for “Bemoanable" and “Faubus" are also her own. But trivia aside, both compositions are re-imaginings of the two tunes that are bouncy, funky and electronic. And while they may step up the pace of the originals, they don’t take away from the sheer genius of the original composer. I made a playlist with Muldrow’s versions alternated with the originals. And it works like a do-it-yourself EP: the modern version segueing seamlessly into the traditional, original one.

There is a caveat, though. It would not be accurate to say that the new versions of those two tunes are by Muldrow. They are not. They are by Jyoti.

Yes, that’s the Janus aspect of Muldrow’s musical personality. Like Mingus, Muldrow straddles a range of styles and genres. But she also has aliases. One of them is Jyoti, a name given to her by the jazz musician and composer Alice Coltrane, who was a friend of the family (Muldrow grew up in Los Angeles and her parents were accomplished musicians). And Jyoti is the name she uses for her explorations of avant-garde jazz and electronic music. She also composes and performs under her birth name. But the music she makes then is different: It’s another form of jazz, amalgamated with funk, hip hop and neo-soul. But Jyoti’s newest album, Mama, You Can Bet!, dedicated to her mother, Rickie Byars Beckwith, continues Muldrow’s passionate journey into experiments with free jazz.

Besides the two re-imaginings of Mingus tunes, Mama, You Can Bet! has complex compositions: interplays between keyboards, percussion and bass but also, for the first time in her Jyoti avatar, Muldrow adds layers of her singing voice, which has been compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Roberta Flack. The distinctive thing about her Jyoti incarnation is that Muldrow rarely uses any other musician, preferring to compose and play everything herself. At concerts, she performs—singing and moving with shaman-like grace—to her recorded compositions.

The 15 tunes on Mama, You Can Bet! are eclectic, heady and engrossing. But they also fit together remarkably. Occasionally funky, sometimes soulful and always virtuosic, it’s an album that showcases the rare talent of someone who first began playing in her teens and has now become a hugely prolific musician talented not only in jazz but in soul, blues, hip hop and funk.

To explore Muldrow’s other, non-Jyoti avatar, the first stop has to be the Seattle channel KEXP, which has a freely-accessible video of a full live performance of her and her husband, Declaime (Dudley Perkins), in the channel’s studio. It’s from 2019, just after the duo had released Black Love & War, a full-length album on which they channel messages about black heritage, resistance and healing. When you watch the couple perform some of those songs from the album on the KEXP video, the love and complementarity is palpable. They also have a record label founded in 2008—SomeOthaShip Connect—that they use for most of their album releases, and which ensures them unconstrained creative freedom.

When it comes to releases, Muldrow has been prodigious. She has a few albums as Jyoti, but many more under her birth name. So many that navigating them can send you down a rabbit hole as you explore and get acquainted with her penchant for experimenting with styles and genres that could otherwise seem immiscible but which she blends together with finesse.

But to begin one’s acquaintance with Muldrow’s music, there is no better way to start than with the new Jyoti album. Because Mama, You Can Bet! is quite easily the best demonstration of how comprehensive and genre-defyingly talented a jazz musician can be. At 37, Muldrow already has a prodigious output of recordings. We can only expect much more.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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