Black Monument Ensemble is the brainchild of Chicago-based musician/DJ/visual artist/jack of all trades Damon Locks. Originally conceived as a solo project to showcase Locks’ sound collage work, the project has since morphed into a multi-generational collective of nearly 20 Chicago artists, ranging in age from nine to 52, that includes musicians, singers and dancers. This expansive, multi-disciplinary approach is showcased in full on their latest album, NOW.
Recorded in just a few takes at the tail end of summer 2020, NOW captures the rawness, emotion, energy and anxiety of everything happening at that whirlwind time in history, from the frightening surrealness of living through a pandemic to the mounting social justice movement. Building upon the legacy of free jazz luminaries like Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, it’s a staggering work of politically charged cosmic improvisation that commands your full attention, blending jazz with sampling to create sound collages laced with tribal drumming and piercing horn melodies. The fact that the album was recorded outdoors in the garden behind Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio only adds to its sense of immediacy; the band’s joy at the end of a successful take is captured, and the noise of cicadas is heard in the background of a few tracks, charming details that make you feel like you’re listening to a live performance unfold (which you basically are, albeit with some appropriate post-production flourishes).
The album is interspersed with snippets of old lectures, interviews and other various sound bites from political activists and prisoners that capture the social unrest of last year’s pandemic summer. Most seem to have been recorded around the civil rights era but could easily apply to today, illustrating that the more things change the more they also stay the same. With this in mind, the question Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble presents is: what happens now?