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Published: 2017/06/02
by Mike Greenhaus

Jordan McLean: Antibalas, Armo and Onward

Trumpeter Jordan McLean has been a core member of Antibalas since a few gigs after its inception in 1998. Along with the rest of the pioneering Afrobeat group, he’s helped introduce a new generation of music fans to a once overlooked form of Nigerian music. Antibalas’ early residencies at NoMoore Lounge and Wetlands blurred the line between politically active communal gatherings and traditional shows and, during the past decade, the members of Antibalas have grown into something of New York’s house band. (The Antibalas Horns, in different configurations, have performed with the likes of Phish, The String Cheese Incident, Medeski Martin & Wood, The Disco Biscuits, David Byrne, TV on the Radio, Mark Ronson, Wyclef Jean and Tony Visconte, among many others.)

Antibalas grew out of the same musical community that produced Daptone Records and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, and McLean also served as a charter member of Jones’ original outfit, the Soul Providers. In addition to his continued work with Antibalas, McLean keeps busy with a diverse mixture of projects, including the chamber band Ensemble Callada, the harder edge Directors! and The Sway Machinery, an outfit rooted in traditional Jewish cantorial music. More recently, McLean has formed a close association with Joe Russo and, after participating in “The Friday Night Jam” speaking series, has started to explore Antibalas’ music in a more stripped-down setting with Antibalas singer Amayo as Armo. Antibalas are currently putting the final touches on their first record since their 2012 self-titled release, and McLean hints that the album will have a new, conceptual twist. “The new record is being mastered and manufactured as we speak,” he says. “There is a theme, to be sure, and it will be unlike any Antibalas record to date.”

Let’s start by talking about your new “chamber Afrobeat project” Armo, which grew out of the Friday Night Jam speaking event I am part of. Can you describe your goals for that project and what you have learned about Amayo’s music by presenting it in a more stripped-down setting?

First off, thank you for giving us our start—a very happy accidental collection of players based on people’s availability for that particular gig. Our goals for Armo are to enter the heart of our listeners—to engage the jamband audience on the cerebral and booty level. I have been playing Amayo’s music as long as he has been composing it, and approaching it from the perspective of a “chamber” band, it demonstrates how strong the parts are while allowing for more space between the parts because we are only six instead of 12.

Your other new project is Ensemble Callada. Can you also describe how this chamber ensemble came about and how you decided to start working on material for this 10-piece group?

I have been studying the rarified music of Federico Mompou for almost 25 years and have been thinking about transferring the 10 fingers of his piano music to a 10 piece band for the last 20 years. I have performed orchestrations of his songs and the first book of Musica Callada (from where the band draws its name) for my piano/trumpet/cello trio for about 15 years now, so it really is a long-term relationship. The appeal is the elegant dissonance in his harmonic scheme and the simplicity of his transposed melodic gestures; it is a perfect marriage of peace and unrest which I think is what grabbed Miles and Bill Evans when they were working on Kind Of Blue.

You were recently part of Joe Russo’s presentation of Hooteroll? . How did you and Joe first come in contact, and what were your takeaways from that night of very free, jazzy music?

I was blown away by everyone’s soloing as well as the spirit of ensemble playing. Of course there was a long history between each person with Joe, but we were a new band. I was also really, really impressed with the audience that night; so open to this music that most people probably were not as familiar with as they are with the music of the Grateful Dead. Joe and I first met doing the “Complete Last Waltz” concerts [at the Capitol Theatre the evening before Thanksgiving], if I’m not mistaken. I have had the pleasure of doing two JRAD gigs and he has played with Armo once already now.

Antibalas has been part of the Dead world since the Wetlands days but always played a different style of improvisational music. What are your personal roots in the jamband world, and were you surprised that Antibalas was embraced by that audience?

My personal roots probably start with playing the Wetlands with my live drum and bass band Droid and a live hip-hop funk band called 10 Man. It was started by Jeff Krasno, older brother of Eric, in the late ‘90s. [Jeff managed Soulive early on and started the Velour label as well as the Wanderlust festivals.] I would go to Groove Collective shows there in the early-mid ‘90s and even shared a bill there with my college band Mama Joy and [Daptone founder] Gabe Roth’s college band the Dynomatics with Gabe on drums and Luke O’Malley of Antibalas and The Roots on vocals. I was never surprised the jam world has embraced Antibalas; we are all on a deeply explorative quest.

In recent years, The Antibalas Horns have become something of a house band for New York-area benefits and events at Carnegie Hall. Can you pinpoint a moment where you felt like the horn section started to take on this roll, and how do you think those ensemble performances have shaped the Antibalas sound?

The first time we were engaged as a section outside of Antibalas was on the MMW record Uninvisible. Playing with so many different artists as a section now, from The Roots to String Cheese, has given us a sense as a section that we can really count on one another to deliver in any setting.

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