The phrase “jazz trio at the Kennedy Center” does not often come with the caveat “bring earplugs.” But, then, that jazz trio has never before been Harriet Tubman (emcee Kevin Struthers took pains to introduce them as “Harriet Tubman, the band”), who made their debut Saturday night at the KC Jazz Club with a blare of noisy and often free-form electric jazz. Through the first set’s assault, however, they maintained a (frequently surprising) grip on a strong current of melody.
In fact, that current was apparent even before the blare was. Guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Melvin Gibbs opened the set with a duet on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” The performance could be best described as careful: Gibbs studiously stuck to playing inverted arpeggios on his six-string electric bass, and Ross, though he used a distortion pedal throughout the song, applied it for detail rather than swagger. It was when drummer J.T. Lewis came crashing in, on Wadada Leo Smith’s “President Obama’s Speech at the Selma Bridge” (from “Araminta” — Tubman’s recording with trumpeter Smith that was one of this year’s best), that their sound became a battering ram. Jazz drummers are often regarded as the personality of a performance, and Lewis was no exception: It was he who brought the free-form spirit to the tune, spattering thuds and crashes liberally over it with particular attention to his two rack toms. Gibbs hopped unpredictably across chords, and Ross emitted lines that darted, spiderlike, through the maelstrom.
There were plenty of excursions into other sonic terrain, too. “Blacktal Fractal” was complex funk, with Lewis first establishing a groove, then Gibbs a counter-groove for Ross to signify over. “Afro Chic” was a full-blown rocker, taut (thanks to Gibbs and Lewis) but loud (thanks to Ross). But melody was the throughline of the set. Ross’s work on “Blacktal Fractal” involved precise phrases, separated with a kind of staccato framework that brought each discrete phrase into relief. “U Street,” a particularly noisy piece colored by clouds of feedback from Gibbs, also featured single-note lines on guitar and judicious vamps from Gibbs on one string of his bass. The hammering but textured “Wadmalaw Island” began and ended with a fragile, folklike statement.
The evening’s most melodic moment was also its most moving. Ross fingered a very delicate line that he then looped to accompany himself as he unexpectedly began singing with a pleasing tenor voice the hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday.” All three musicians began quietly and gained intensity, though without letting go of the calm resolve at the song’s center, circling back to Ross repeating the title lyric: “If in my heart I do not yield, I’ll overcome someday.”