On Jazz Codes, the prolific artist Camae Ayewa’s second album as Moor Mother in the last nine months, the poet and musician lays the idea of genre out on the operating table and dissects it. With a career spent in close proximity to what could nominally be described as jazz, rap, and experimental music, Ayewa takes this opportunity to let in more legibly jazzy textures, like Keir Neuringer’s alto saxophone, so that she can peer at them with an analytical eye, exploring Black musical forms and their histories through bold recontextualizations of her own design.
Jazz Codes cycles through idiomatic sounds, often delivered by collaborators, each a reference that points to another reference, and on and on. Jason Moran lays down rollicking piano on “ODE TO MARY,” a tribute to the early jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams that ends with an archival recording of Williams talking about Dizzy Gillespie. On “UMZANSI”—credited to Black Quantum Futurism, Ayewa’s duo with Philadelphia’s Rasheedah Phillips—syncopated drum machines nod to Philly club and Chicago footwork. On “RAP JASM,” Ayewa slips out of spoken word to try on a rap flow and riff on OutKast: “Forever ever, motherfucker, you know the song.” Even as she references the past and the present, she worries on “DUST TOGETHER” about things disappearing when she falls asleep. She’s scribbling, contending not only with the erasure of marginalization but the inescapable fallibility of memory.
On “BLUES AWAY,” she begins, “Now how am I s’posed to play the blues when I’m feeling this good?” But what follows is a weeping complaint backed by New Jersey rap weirdo Fatboi Sharif. “You took the blues away from me,” they bawl together. So the blues is gone, and in its absence, “my heart won’t sing,” “the band can’t play,” and “the drummer can’t swing.” This is a theme on Jazz Codes: Black genres—jazz, blues, rap—have been adulterated, either destroyed or diminished. In this case, though, Ayewa is using a familiar narrative to stress that acrobatic leaps of Black musicianship from one innovation to another are a necessity as each successive form gets altered; she’s concerned with the things you must leave behind when you’re constantly made a refugee.
Jazz Codes is also a record about the anxiety of the artwork’s relationship to other works, a real artist-as-critic kind of deal. That line of inquiry becomes clear when she contemplates Mary Lou Williams’ piano sound, or tries to remake the woundedness at the core of the blues, or constructs an assemblage of hip-hop signifiers, or traces diasporic lines from “Mississippi to East Texas” to Congo to Barbados in a spoken-word passage over Aquiles Navarro’s echoing trumpet that she calls a “MEDITATION RAG.”