Like most artists, trumpeter and composer Gabriel Alegría and members of his Afro-Peruvian Sextet have been profoundly affected by the pandemic. But thanks to their “determined fans and a poem-gone-viral,” the group has been able to persevere in the face of adversity. The result is their new concept album, Social Distancing, a “musical memoir (& protest)” based on artistic collaborations inspired by the 2020 pandemic as well as issues of social justice that have surfaced over that past year. “Every sound and rhythm,” says Alegría, “is an attempt to guide you safely away from the confusion” into the band’s safe space: Afro-Peruvian jazz music.
Each track on the album makes a statement relevant to the times. The opening track, “And the People Stayed Home,” is set a poem about the pandemic by Kitty O’Meara, who offered to collaborate by recording her spoken text which the band sets to music.
The crux of the project is the four movement Social Distancing suite that opens with “Covid-19,” a “festijo” based on an atonal 12-tone row to portray the “angular and deadly power of the virus.” Featuring guest artist Russell Ferrante (The Yellowjackets) on piano, the horn heavy disjointed track is propelled towards an abrupt conclusion signaled by the rapid staccato warning signal of the trumpet. Following is “The Mask,” a more sinister, percussive track that incorporates a spoken word interpretation of the Peruvian Son de los Diablos by Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón. Moving into the socio-political spectrum, “George & Breonna” is a multi-layered chaotic patchwork of sharp, improvisatory statements that portray racial hate and broken systems as it pays homage to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and #blacklivesmatter. The suite concludes with “The New Normal,” incorporating a laid back, funky panalivio groove that explodes into a full blown celebration signaling a sense of optimism and hope that we can soon return to living life at the fullest.
Other tracks on the album include “Mirando al Shingo,” a tribute Alegría’s grandfather that represents life before the pandemic, and the uplifting “Octavio y Natalia” channeling the playful and innocent nature of children as well as the hope that no parent will experience their child’s death, whether due to a pandemic or violence. The album concludes as it began, with a reprise of “And the People Stayed Home,” this time in Spanish.
Social Distancing is a marvelously imaginative album that encapsulates the current fears and uncertainties of the present, while showcasing Gabriel Alegría and his Afro-Peruvian Sextet at their finest.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss