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Blogarrhea: A True Crime Story Turns Into Great Art...Meet Ochion Jewell

By Mike Greenblatt m.greenblatt@classicalite.com on Oct 03, 2015 11:07 AM EDT

This week's Blogarrhea takes a look at a unique case of almost-tragic true crime turned into great art. Saxophonist Ochion Jewell was the victim of police brutality who sued the NYPD, settled out-of-court and used the proceeds to fund the recording and the self-release of his second CD, VOLK. It just happens to be an uncategorizable pastiche of folk, jazz, classical, prog rock and world, without succumbing to standard fusion or traditional world music. Our story starts in the Brooklyn subway past midnight

It was late one 2011 Brooklyn night when sax man Ochion (pronounced Ocean) Jewell was smoking some hand-rolled tobacco waiting for a train. Before he knew it, two plain-clothed detectives confronted him, called him by a different name and peppered him with questions about things he knew nothing about. Then they beat him up, choking him until he passed out. When he came to, he was in handcuffs, having had an empty crack vile planted in his pocket. Twenty-six hours later, he was still rotting in a cell and charged with possession of narcotics paraphernalia.

As a result of this egregious misuse of power resulting in a valid case of police brutality, Jewell was diagnosed with PTSD and acute anxiety disorder. His family sued the NYPD and won a substantial out-of-court settlement. In fact, his story became a chapter in muckraker Matt Taibbi's The Divide book. "I wanted justice," Jewell told Taibbi. "My goal was to get these guys' badges taken away. But the lawyer just laughed and said, 'that never happens. If you want justice in New York, go for money.'"

He took the money alright and invested it in VOLK, one of the more enticing left-field self-released jazz entries of the year. Dig it: as the follow-up to his promising First Suite For Quartet debut, he has fashioned a masterwork for his quartet to celebrate the divergent sounds of folk music from different countries...but through a jazz blender. The band consists of Moroccan pianist Amino Belyamani, Persian-American bassist Sam Minaie, Pakistani-American drummer Qasim Naqvi and, on two very special tracks, the West African guitarist Lionel Loueke. This last VOLK contributor is something of a Jewell coup as Loueke, over the last seven years, has grown in international music stature with three incredible Blue Note CDs, 2008's Karibu, 2010's Mwaliko and 2012's Heritage. He's also found time to add his signature Benin Afro-Folk licks to CDs by Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock.

VOLK is arranged into four suites celebrating the regional traditions of four separate areas of geography. "Kun Mun Kultani Tulili" starts out as an equivocation of a traditional Nordic folk song that half-way through turns into prog rock before going completely haywire into a group improvisation. That's the thing about VOLK. Forget your concepts of world-jazz or jazz-rock fusion. This is new-music, shape-shifting jams of esoteric proportions that thrill as well as confound. "Radegast" starts out with a simple Ukraine folk melody before folding in on itself like origami to reveal a minimalist aesthetic. "The Master" might start with an African percussive moment but dives down the rabbit hole only to resurface as hard bop before morphing yet again into the blues.

The final geographical locale is his own: Appalachia. Jewell had all but ignored the bluegrass strains of southeastern Kentucky his whole life. Now, as the last suite of two American folk songs close out this far-reaching hour, "Oh Shenandoah" and "Black Is The Color (Of My True Love's Hair)," one realizes that as far from home as he got, Jewell ends up right back in his own backyard.

Testicular fortitude is one of life's rare plusses. Without it, Ochion Jewell may never have survived his one-night true-crime reality show. But he put it to good use. It's the same sense of purpose he displayed as a much younger man when still tethered to a Kentucky area with no clubs that served alcohol for miles around. Where to gig? Luckily, he fell under the sway of one Bruce Martin, an older jazzer who showed him where the action was. Ultimately, Jewell wound up studying classical saxophone at the University of Louisville and then at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) where he met, learned from and befriended such musician-teachers as Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith and Joe LaBarbera.

So he won. But I doubt he'll be lighting up any self-rolled cigarettes in the subway anymore.

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TagsBlog, Ochion Jewell Quartet, victims of police brutality