Phil Venable: Bringing the Light | ★★★½| Soul City Sounds  |  June 16

Phil Venable records and releases music under the umbrella of Soul City Sounds, a small imprint that cultivates a unique intersection of jazz, poetry, and the artier side of old-school Chapel Hill indie rock.

The imprint is especially notable for releasing The River Speaks of Thirst, the revelatory first album by North Carolina poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green, in 2020. The album brushed Green’s innately musical verses with jazz so wispy it was basically ambient. The collaboration continued the next year with a more orchestral but nearly as subdued setting of Green’s “I Want to Undie You.”

Now she has returned to Soul City Sounds as a guest on Venable’s Bringing the Light, but this time with a band that’s letting it rip.

Bringing the Light is a three-track EP of spiritual free jazz following the star of protean saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who died last fall. Playing guitar and upright bass himself, Venable assembled a rather inspired quartet. The kit of veteran North Carolina jazz drummer Tommy Jackson blends with the hand percussion of Ken Moshesh, a D-Town Brass member with a storied Bay Area history.

In the spotlight is shadowy saxophonist “Crowmeat” Bob Pence, the comparative youngster in this seasoned ensemble, who has still been a crossover fixture in local jazz and experimental music for decades.

Pence opens “The Valley” with an ominous purr, then blows a bluesy geometry over scattering percussion. On “The Climb,” the band shatters a sultry groove and pits it against the powerful undertow of Green’s poem “Love Note to the Ancestors.” To hear her verses in a more aggressive context is very interesting.

There’s a moment halfway through when the music and words seem to be on the verge of separating onto different tracks, but it occasions a thrilling moment when Green slams them back together, speeding her cadence on the repeated word “now.”

Likewise, “The View” shows a new side of Chapel Hill–based gospel singer Jennifer Evans, who sings fluid runs and weighty lyrical fragments that connect Black Lives Matter and ’60s civil rights protests over music that sounds like a psych-rock construction site.

On Bringing the Light, the sound and language sometimes seem to have a bit more distance between them than they did on prior poetic melds, which takes some getting used to, but it’s just evidence of a collaboration growing bolder, with many haunting and heroic moments to be found. 

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