Drumming Toward Spiritual Unity: Mark Lomax II's 400: An Afrikan Epic
Josh Langhoff

It all starts and ends with drums.

The new musical work 400: An Afrikan Epic is an ambitious… suite? Cycle? What’s the word for twelve albums of jazz, currently available only as a complete eighty-dollar download, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath? “Epic” may have to do. Representing three years’ work by Dr. Mark Lomax, II, a jazz drummer, composer, and lecturer at the Ohio State University, and funded by his residency at the university’s Wexner Center for the Arts, 400 seeks to convey the African-African experience with scope and heft to match its subject.

Lomax Its jumping-off point is the year 1619, when Englishmen first brought kidnapped Angolan slaves to Jamestown, Virginia. This event began the Ma’afa, Swahili for “terrible occurence,” whose trauma is still deeply embedded in American life. Lomax originally conceived 400 as a symphony, and maintained that three-movement structure as the piece grew. The first four albums depict life in West Africa before the Ma’afa, the central four deal with slavery’s repercussions in the U.S., and the closing four-album “movement” is an Afro-futuristic vision of unity.

Despite this heavy throughline, 400 is one of the most sheerly enjoyable jazz sets of 2019. It covers as much stylistic territory as drummer Alison Miller’s eclectic Glitter Wolf (to add to your rhythmic jazz shopping list), and when it swings, it swings as hard as the debut album from percussive call-and-response combo ¿Que Vola? When you consider it’s twelve times the length of either, eighty bucks seems like a bargain.

How epic is this epic? The 400 cycle includes, but is not limited to:

•Dozens of blistering performances by Lomax’s working duo, trio, and quartet, all featuring tenor saxophonist Edwin Bayard;

•An album of cello quartets (Four Women) dedicated to powerful black women;

•A five-part suite (Blues in August) for quartet and strings, based on playwright August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle, itself a sweeping chronicle of African-American experience;

•A three-part suite based on Daniel Black’s novel The Coming, including excerpts read by the author;

•And, as mentioned earlier, opening and closing albums (First Ankhcestor and Afrika United) for drums alone.

Those opening and closing gestures signify spiritually as well as musically. “Afrikan cosmology… teaches us that the Drum is the first Ancestor,” Lomax has said. “The cycle begins with the Drum because it represents the first vibration; a time when we were last happy, healthy, and whole.” It ends with the drum because “we must return to the original vibration for healing from the trauma of the Ma’afa” (Bayley). Listen to 400 once and it’s nearly a palindrome. Listen again, and the ending leads back to the beginning, Finnegans Wake-style, giving the early chapters new depth.

Anyone who’s spent time with a degenerate high school percussion section might dispute Lomax’s lofty cosmology, but his idea of cyclical history is common in art. It’s useful as both structural device and metaphor. Literature and music are littered with returns to divine governance, if not to Eden itself. Joni Mitchell knew all about it: “We are stardust, we are golden/ And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” The closing essay of Amiri Baraka’s 1968 critical anthology Black Music prophesied Lomax’s aesthetic trip. “[W]hat will come will be Unity Music,” wrote Baraka. “The Black Music which is jazz and blues, religious and secular.” Unity Music would “include all the resources, all the rhythms, all the yells and cries, all that information about the world, the Black ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, opening and entering.”

Complex but simple, teeming with ideas but irreducible like the rush of wind, everyone speaking in different tongues but all understood: Isn’t that the way of the Spirit?

In the 1960s, instrumental jazz of the freer, noisier sort invented new ways of sounding religious. John Coltrane’s modal “sheets of sound,” Albert Ayler’s insistent praise wails, Pharoah Sanders’s shrieking in tongues—these saxmen all sounded Baraka’s Black ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, distinguishing themselves from the more worldly avant-gardes of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. Lomax and Bayard work a similar devotional tradition. The titles on 400 do some of the heavy lifting for them. No one would be surprised to find tracks called “Rapture” or “Blessing of the Agon” filling one side of a Pharoah Sanders LP, and Lomax might have nicked some of his titles from jazz gurus like Ayler (“Spirits”) and the swamini Alice Coltrane (“Transcendence”). But even if he’d named every tune “Lomax Leaps In,” his music would bear unmistakable marks of religiosity, like flames dancing on foreheads.

One such mark is rhythmic. Lomax performs the opening album, First Ankhcestor, with a liturgical drum ensemble. The Ngoma Lungunda drummers play at First African Presbyterian Church, founded by Lomax’s father in Lithonia, Georgia. (The Rev. Dr. Mark Lomax incorporates traditional African practices into his Presbyterian liturgies, which also boast compelling sermon series like “Yeshua: Our Afrikan Messiah.”) With the younger Dr. Lomax, the drummers create buoyant beds of rhythm, indifferent to the demands of linear time. Songs like “Talking Drums” don’t do anything so gauche as “develop.” They gallop along steadily with patterns of three and five nestled against patterns of four. Soloists periodically rise from the textures, make themselves known, and dissolve away again. These pieces range in length from four to ten minutes, but it’s hard to gauge their length while they’re playing. They suggest slices of eternity, windows onto enormously flexible fields of play where any event would feel equally welcome.

Lomax has likened this flexibility of groove, “the cyclical thing,” to Elvin Jones’s drum technique (Sanford). Jones’s floating sense of time was crucial to Coltrane’s landmark of jazz spirituality, 1964’s A Love Supreme—which, after half a century, remains a singular work of emotional generosity, a giant embrace that draws listeners to a higher place. The Coltrane quartet played like they “saw a version of you that was superior to the version you saw of yourself,”  to borrow a phrase from the novelist Lauren Wilkinson. Besides the rhythms, the band got this sound by using modes, pentatonic scales, and the telltale piano voicings of McCoy Tyner, heavy on perfect fourths and fifths, all of which opened the music to new realms of ravishing harmonic ambiguity.  

If Coltrane realized a vision, Lomax pins it down into a theology. That oversimplifies the matter somewhat—after all, Coltrane built his music atop countless hours of careful thought, and Lomax’s bands can sound plenty inspired. But Lomax is most convincing when he reshapes the work of his forebears into new rhetorical gestures. His quartet tunes draw heavily on the Supreme musical syntax, with Bayard blowing his themes into flurries and squawks while pianist William Menefield maintains an expansive calm. This is especially true on The Coming, set just before the Ma’afa, and on Tales of the Black Experience, where the quartet re-records Lomax’s first commissioned pieces from 1998. The work of a 20-year-old, Tales is the most derivative album here, but the band’s authoritative playing makes it fit right in.

Among other things, Lomax is a collage artist. But then, collage artists and synthetic theologians are two sides of the same coin, and Lomax the theologian finds other visions to work with. Four long, mostly improvised trio cuts (Up South and Ankh & the Tree of Life) are intermittently thrilling and boring, not unlike worship services or those album-side-filling Sanders meditations. The simple call-and-response bops on Song of the Dogon are simply thrilling, Sonny Rollins calypsos shorn into playground taunts, their repetitions punctuated by thunderous tom-tom rolls.

Lomax’s compositions tend to sound like other writers’, but his drumming style belongs to him. He spends a lot of time on his tuned toms, so much that on several tunes (“LEB,” “Oshoshi”) his drums are able to carry the melodies. Besides that sonic thumbprint, he’s got a rock-solid sense of groove. He and bassist Dean Hulett morph from strict time to nebulous pulse on a dime. He told one interviewer his next ambition is to make his Western drum set talk: “a recitation of poetry where the drums are playing the poem. I’m trying to figure out a notation that makes sense, it can’t be standard because you’re dealing with different inflections” (Sanford). This sounds like the time Jason Moran transcribed an Afrika Bambaataa rap for piano. Listening to Lomax’s expressive tom work, it’s easy to believe he could pull off something similar.

Nobody makes twelve perfect albums, and 400 has its share of blank spots, moments where the music could be more inspired or the writing tighter. In particular, Lomax’s compositions for string ensembles make for a mixed bag. The string-plus-jazz numbers comprising Blues In August are joys to hear, from the swagger of “Fences” to the expressionism of “Gem of the Ocean,” but the cello writing of Four Women meanders from theme to theme, unwilling to commit to either nonstop invention or more austere minimalism. But then, nobody has time to listen to twelve albums straight through. Fortunately, 400 works as an epic for the age of shuffle. Hear one of those cello quartets followed by a dancing Dogon song, chased by a blazing jam for sax and drums, and then by a movement from the Ma’afa ballet (did I mention Lomax included a ballet?), with the bass creaking like a ship’s hull, and you may think: Today Amiri Baraka’s scripture has been fulfilled in my hearing. All the resources; all the rhythms; all the yells and cries—they add up to a liturgical epic of the first order.

Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to Mexican music.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones). “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music),” 1967. In Black Music, 180-211. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1968

Bayley, Lynn René. “An Interview With Dr. Mark Lomax.” The Art Music Lounge. February 6, 2019. https://artmusiclounge.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/an-interview-with-dr-mark-lomax/

Sanford, Richard. “Mark Lomax II Premieres 400: An Afrikan Epic at the Lincoln January 26.” JazzColumbus.com. January 15, 2019. http://www.jazzcolumbus.com/mark-lomax-ii-premieres-the-400-an-afrikan-epic-at-the-lincoln-january-26/

Wilkinson, Lauren. American Spy. New York: Random House, 2019.


You can buy 400 and listen to excerpts of all 58 tracks at www.marklomaxii.com.

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