Tyrone Birkett is a saxophonist, composer, producer, and speaker with extensive experience partnering art and social action. As the conceptualist, composer and musical director of the band Tyrone Birkett Emancipation, he has created Postmodern Spirituals, a project that synthesizes jazz language, black church music, soul music & Negro spirituals. Fronted by his saxophone and the declarative vocals of his wife, Paula Ralph Birkett, lyric and melody are enveloped in a sonic environment of intriguing harmonies, funk and jazz rhythmic underpinnings, shaped by painstakingly constructed arrangements that are topped off with virtuosic & soulful improvisation.
An encounter with an audience member on the street after a performance really pushed Tyrone to present this last edition of the band. “After we played our set, a young woman came up to me stating she ‘needed’ the music but we didn’t have CDs at the location. I told her to wait and I’ll get her one, but when I returned, she was gone. She said she 'needed' the CD, not 'wanted' as I remembered her face of desperation. She was in sort of distress and the music provided something for her”. This experience led to creating music that was “necessary”, purposed to bring the hope of freedom song into the 21st century, to provoke social change through art for the benefit of the disinherited and disenfranchised. And a voice against oppression of the soul by our own inner conflicts.
“I want the music to be a catharsis for expressing freedom of heart, mind, and soul. A 'lifting' of the atmosphere at least for a little while”, Tyrone remarks. To that purpose, he assembles a core set of musicians with experience in jazz, r&b and black church music. Musicians that have played with diverse acts such as gospel superstars Mary Mary, jazz trendsetter Jason Moran, r&b mainstays Faith Evans and Kelly Price and a cappella African-American music legends Sweet Honey In The Rocks to name a few. This merger of Jazz sensibilities, with Soul and Spirit music with his own conception brings a multi-dimensional experience to the listener.
For twenty-five years Tyrone has been comfortable in bringing curative and empowering art to concert stages and clubs as well as prisons, hospitals, and schools, what keeps him going?
“The joy of abstract creative ideas, and the imagining of people free and revived, which then becomes sonic realities on stage reviving the audience. It is a quest you want to take on over and over again. I want people to be free.”
Next in that mission is continued presentations of “How Can We Sing In A Strange Land” a talk/performances discussing the Freedom Song; the production of “Those Whose Backs Are Against the Wall”; a multi-movement, multi-disciplinary work on hope to the oppressed and forgotten; and ongoing release of new music in video and audio platforms in the months to come.
Influences: John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Walter Hawkins. Robert Glasper, Meshell Ndegeocello.
International - Bermuda One in the Sun Festival, Palais des congrès de Montréal (Montreal Convention Center)
In The Fullness of Time, 2006
Postmodern Spirituals, The Promised Land, 2014
Dwyer Cultural Center
Bronx Council on the Arts - 2-time winner of BRIO (The Bronx Recognizes Its Own) Award in Instrumental Music
Puffin Foundation Grant for the Seven Star Suite
Flushing Town Hall Space Grant for “Those Whose Backs Are Against the Wall”
The Postmodern Spiritual is a twenty first century extension of the freedom song. Music composed and performed to speak to our present circumstances, individually and for the community. It is healing music to alleviate the aftereffects of these situations on the mind, soul and spirit in today's world. Musically it re-imagines and revives the Negro spiritual by incorporating jazz sensibilities with soul and black church music . Along with new compositions likened to its predecessor, the Postmodern Spiritual is freedom music for the 21st century.
Since slavery we have had the Negro spiritual, understanding its existence as a form of lament, protest, spiritual inspiration, and coded communication. Based on the belief that there must be justice somewhere, somehow, Negro spirituals gave a voice to the condition of an enslaved, oppressed people in the hopes that a change would come. Its usage from the time of the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement helped invigorate the spirit of a people striving for freedom.
The Postmodern Spiritual is a current attempt to utilize that same strength and hope in order to counter the lack of physical, mental and spiritual liberty that people all over the world still struggle to achieve. Along with the physical and political oppression experienced during slavery and throughout history to the current acts of dehumanization, we also need to address a different and hidden type of oppression. The underlying oppression which comes from uncertainty in a constantly changing world, everyday efforts "to be" and thrive, and even to work out a simple existence. A struggle that is fought universally by all who do not have the benefit of privilege and status.
Life in the postmodern world is rich in technological advances; we have moved away from the absolute and objective truths that seemed to hinder us from living as free people. We are, however, without spiritual anchors and cultural/ethical signposts, burdening us with modern-day stressors that are not assuaged by mass culture and cultural artifacts. Reasoning and intellect are sufficient for analysis but are insufficient in acting as the remedy. We must address the point where circumstance presses hard on the soul.
The postmodern spiritual was birthed out of observing the need for a transcending, empowering, curative music again. That which could show we can believe in freedom of mind and “to be”; against all contrary empirical evidence based on reason & logic. An artistic expression that would instigate a mobilization of courage and a "standing tall" posture in the face of overwhelming opposition. Music that would apply a healing balm to the wounds inflicted by indifference, hate and circumstance. Music that would celebrate the humanity and dignity in all of us, and to elevate those who Howard Thurman characterized as having their "backs against the wall” - the disinherited of our world.
Like the jazz of Coltrane, this music pushes toward self-realization and uplifting of mankind. Like the Negro Spirituals and gospel sung by Fannie Lou Hamer, the enslaved and the protestor, it has the same fervent faith. Like the soul music of Steve Wonder, this music is a chronicle of and a commentary on our everyday joys, injustices, and triumphs. This melding is achieved while keeping intact the resolute conviction that compelled Harriet Tubman to bring her people to freedom and the perseverance that the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement displayed against all odds. Again, the postmodern spiritual is the freedom music of the 21st century.
The Postmodern Spiritual is the re-imagined Negro spiritual as transformed through the genres of jazz, black church music and soul music that proceeded from those early songs of freedom. This music tells a story with the use of jazz language and improvisation that is juxtaposed with simple folk themes as melodies, that can be described as “neo-folk” in its character underpinned at times by modernistic harmonic structure. Like the Negro spiritual, it has lyrically vivid imagery that is performed with the fervor of gospel music and the elegance of soul music. The music uses structured forms and is sometimes episodic but is open for expression in duration, mood, tempo, and on-the-spot interpretation that is familiar to the aforementioned music expressions.
The music is intended for all audiences in a variety of contexts, but is especially suited for concert presentations in colleges, art centers, museums, cultural institutions, churches, and concert halls. It can also be presented alongside lectures and workshops on related subjects as well as in collaboration with dance, video and live art.
SELECTED PRESS QUOTES
Brenda Nelson-Strauss – Black Grooves - Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.
Saxophonist Tyrone Birkett, a veteran performer with roots in the sanctuaries of the black church and ‘70s soul-jazz, presents his concept of the postmodern spiritual—a retelling of the Negro freedom song for contemporary audiences featuring his band Emancipation. Inspired by musicians ranging from John Coltrane and Miles Davis to Hall Johnson, Mahalia Jackson and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Birkett creates an innovative collage—complex in its execution yet readily accessible. The soulful vocals of Paula Ralph-Birkett unify the eight tracks as they programmatically trace African American history. Setting the stage is the epic eight-minute opening track, “The Departure,” followed by “The Struggle,” together representing a declaration of freedom and the push to overcome obstacles. Both share similar melodic themes and were drawn from Birkett’s longer composition, “The Seven Star Suite” (a third song from the suite, “Freedom Dreaming” is also included). The title track, “The Postmodern Spiritual,” is a song “to help us stand up tall when our backs are against the wall” and employs spoken poetry in the mid-section, conveying Birkett’s concept of “freedom music for the 21st century” combining “the fervor of the spiritual and freedom of improvisation.” On “Motherless Child (Revisited),” Paula stretches her significant vocal range as the spiritual morphs from a slow dirge to a funk driven celebration signaling the transformation from despair to hope. Other highlights include “Deep River,” an instrumental version inspired by the great composer/arranger Moses Hogan, and the contemplative closing song “The Promise,” which Birkett describes as God’s answer to requests for strength, a way to freedom, and justice. Though Birkett may not be a familiar name in jazz circles, this album is highly recommended for its excellent musicianship, creative compositions, and thematic material. This is soul-jazz, gospel-jazz, and contemporary jazz in a harmonious bounty of spirituality and empowerment.
HRAYR ATTARIAN – All About Jazz
Over a period of eight years Birkett's work has matured and he has developed a unique style. This cohesive and delightful disc is a testament of that evolution. ...Post Modern Spirituals: The Promised Land is a stimulating and sincere expression of superb musicianship and deep passion.
Mark S. Tucker – Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
When sax player Tyrone Birkett tells you he gathers his influences wherever he may find them, he isn't kidding around. Postmodern Spirituals: The Promised Land is a CD chockful of everyone he mentions and a good deal more besides: Miles, Quincy, Coltrane, Weather Report (Wayne Shorter), Mike Brecker, gospel, soul, and so on but also Lonnie Liston Smith (Birkett plays keyboards as well and arranges everything here), Sonny Stitt, Dewey Redman, stage opuses, and more besides. In fact, Postmodern sounds like it was meant to be a very hip combo of concert and theatrical presentation. The center point, though, is the proliferation of Birkett's superb soloing, flights that take you beyond borders.
Jack Goodstein – Blogcritics.com
From the opening drum roll of the first of the nouveau spirituals, “The Departure,” it is clear that the listener is in for something out of the ordinary. Birkett’s work on the sax has just enough nuanced soundscape to justify both the term postmodern and his description of the horn as sounding “a clarion call.” Paula Birkett’s vocal is revelatory. She has a voice rich and powerful, and she demonstrates her ownership of the material every time she opens her mouth.
Postmodern Spirituals: The Promised Land is a concept album with a purpose, an album with something to say. It says it with some of the most dynamic musical you are likely to hear from any jazz ensemble around.
Chris Spector – Midwest Record
For all our talk about civil rights jazz and church basement jazz, here's a cat that's taken up the call to arms with modern church basement jazz updating the concepts of freedom songs and Negro spirituals for today. A jazz vet of styles and times, sax man Birkett colors wildly outside the lines for a unique jazz set that keeps you guessing as to what's coming next… Hard hitting stuff that doesn't need Western Union to send it's message.
Dick Metcalf – Improvijazzation Nation
A rather long title for a CD that may be one of the best “sleepers” for 2014 (it was released on 25 March)… as you listen to pieces like the excellent “Freedom Dreaming“, ;you’ll realize you’re in the presence of soul genius (Paula Ralph Birkett’s vocals on this one are priceless & full of raw power)! It was the fantastic & funky opener, “The Departure“, that captured my ear (for every second of it’s 8:20 length)… Tyrone’s reeds on this one are nothing short of amazing & will embed in your mind relentlessly for the next several years! I give the whole crew a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with an “EQ” (energy quotient) rating of 4.99.
Glenn Astarita – jazzreview.com
Ultimately, Tyrone Birkett’s upbeat mode of operations proclaims inspiration from many of the jazz world’s great saxophonists… Here the artist sends a heartening perspective spanning soul, funk and jazz.