Young American trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius stands in a modernist tradition that stretches from be-bop pioneers to the likes of Theo Croker and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah today. He has a sure-footed technique, plays with a burnished tone, and masks his steely musical focus with a warm outward-looking heart. Since graduating from Berklee and moving to New York, he has clocked up impressive sideman credits, and in normal circumstances, this would have been his breakthrough year.

Live From the Prison Nation, featuring The Ego, the band Demetrius has led for the past three years, is his recording debut. As the title suggests, the work is a critique of America’s system of mass incarceration — recorded excerpts of a 2003 speech from Angela Davis introduce the idea of the prison-industrial complex and open the first track. Later, the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal spells out the power of social movements and a recording of a protest chant: “This is what community looks like” confirms the music’s agitational intent.

Impressively, voice-overs and music merge, speech patterns are translated into rhythmic motifs and a passing mood becomes a whole train of thought. But the meat of the album is upscale contemporary mainstream modern jazz with soulful modal themes, well-worked arrangements and a rhythmic blend of hip-hop and swing.

“Expectations”, that opening track, features sharp rhythmic stabs and broody solo trumpet before Demetrius reveals his brash virtuosity with a tumble of notes. As the piece builds, trumpet and sax swap elegant lines and the rhythm section plays with the close-knit assurance of a seasoned band.

The sombre theme of “The Principal” comes next with arpeggiated Benjamin Jephta piano, low-slung bass and drums spitting beats. Then “Yesseh’s Interlude”, a short showcase for Yesseh Furaha-Ali’s articulate tenor sax, is followed by words and music intertwining dramatically on “Mumia’s Guidance”. The album ends with an extended workout launched by a declamatory theme. Tenor sax sensuously slow-builds, bass and drums surge across the pulse and the powerful Demetrius ends on a high.


‘Live From the Prison Nation’ is released by Onyx Productions