Mali Obomsawin Sextet plays at Dimensions in Jazz at Portland Conservatory of Music. Photo by Steve Feeney

After spending time as part of the Americana trio named Lula Wiles, bassist/composer/bandleader/vocalist/percussionist Mali Obomsawin, at least from a progressive jazz fan’s perspective, has arrived at a good place with her latest project.

The Berklee College of Music and Dartmouth College graduate has found an artistic home in a musical tradition dating back to the avant-garde experiments begun by such figures as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and (1970s era) Miles Davis. But she infuses her take on this heady, improvisational approach with songs and stories that reflect her Wabanaki heritage and advocacy for a true telling of Indigenous peoples’ history.

To celebrate the release of her new recording “Sweet Tooth,” her debut album as composer and bandleader, Obomsawin brought her sextet from the disc, except with a different drummer, to the stage at the Portland Conservatory of Music for a much-anticipated Dimensions in Jazz series concert.

The near capacity crowd at the former church in Portland’s West End got to hear a 70-minute performance that encompassed themes of heritage, religion and colonization expressed through chants, sonic drones and complex tonal combinations – sometimes edgy, sometimes more mournful and melancholy.

Recorded and spoken moments were also included. The latter made it clear that the centuries-ago impact of violent, deceitful and subversive forces from Europe is still being felt today among Indigenous people, who now are speaking out once again.

Obomsawin’s resonant upright bass grounded most of the music while drummer Zack O’Farrill used hands and sticks to keep the rhythms moving. Electric guitarist Miriam Elhajli provided bits of chordal structure out of which soloists Allison Burik (alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Noah Campbell (tenor and soprano saxophone), and Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet) could offer their own expansive ideas and elaborations.


Bynum, a renowned musician in the world of cutting-edge jazz and a faculty mentor of Obomsawin at Dartmouth, was particularly impressive with both open and muted cornet solos that reached toward the rafters of the hall with powerful abstract phrasing. His bracing lines seemed to start where those of a lesser player might end.

Burik’s work on bass clarinet included a mesmerizing duet passage with Obomsawin on a piece that included a fascinating aural experience by way of a field recording of an Odanak man telling an ancient story in his native language.

Campbell received some of the most enthusiastic applause of the evening for a wildly expressive tenor sax solo that had his nearby bandmates also nodding in approval.

The concert was not without its more consonant moments, as when the horns harmonized around mournful/melancholy musical suggestions of what was and what might have been.

Like the performance as a whole, an original chant, sung at the close of the suite by Obomsawin, Elhajli and Burik, with only drum accompaniment, combined elements of remembrance and defiance into a touching sense of deep determination.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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