Mali Obomsawin [Photo: Abby and Jared Lank]
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People who come to Mali Obomsawin’s new six-song “Sweet Tooth” via their association with popular roots trio Lula Wiles might find themselves expanding their musical palates. Where bandmate Eleanor Buckland’s late-2021 solo release, “You Don’t Have To Know,” asked listeners to take a little detour into indie rock, Obomsawin’s brand-new suite of songs asks you to break out the GPS and explore decidedly different terrain. 

“Little beknownst to most Lula Wiles fans,” Obomsawin says with a bit of a wry note, on the phone from their West End Portland home, “I have been playing experimental stuff since early high school.” 

The Farmington native had a classically “Maine” musical education, sure, hitting up Maine Jazz Camp before heading to Berklee and then Dartmouth, but they also along the way spent considerable time at Odonak First Nation, in what’s now Quebec, in touch with Wabanaki relatives and tapping into an older tradition. 

It’s this heritage, expressed through cutting-edge improvisational composition and performance, that fills “Sweet Tooth.” The album mines Odonak lore from as long ago as the 1690s and as recent as the 1980s, even field recordings from the early 20th century, and resonates with Obomsawin’s ruminations on their lineage and current reality. 

“I started writing some of these songs while I was studying with (the album’s co-producer) Taylor Ho Bynum at Dartmouth,” where Obomsawin played experimental jazz. “With the pandemic, I finally had time to get more serious with it.” 

You can hear some of the direction in the harder-edged “Shame and Sedition” that Lula Wiles released before a hiatus in 2021.

“I feel like I was always pushing the band to be more comfortable improvising and embracing dissonance and harsher sounds,” Obomsawin said. “I was really pleased with how ‘Shame and Sedition’ came out, and [‘Sweet Tooth’] was really me grounding myself in my own sound.”

The opening “Odana” enters with a trio of horns and reeds awash in cymbals and moves into a sort of dirge. The track has plenty of low end thanks to Obomsawin’s stand-up bass, and Abenaki vocals that were penned by Ambroise O’Bomsawin at Odanak (and first sung and recorded by Canadian filmmaker and relative Alanis Obomsawin for her 1988 album “Bush Lady.”) The tribute to the village constantly threatens to burst into a big ramp up, but instead layers on vocals. It might remind listeners at times of an expositional piece in a serious musical theater production. 

On “Lineage,” we hear especially the influence of Don Cherry, a jazz musician at his peak in the 1970s and ’80s who played with Ornette Coleman and was known for work on the cornet (or pocket trumpet), as Ho Bynum uses here, popping in notes over bass that just slightly drops the beat and tittering rim shots. Then floor toms roll through and the cornet is like madness distilled into brass and there is a full band sound that erupts into chaos before vocals enter around the five-minute mark. 

Their ululation is matched by the cornet until the latter seems to fail, unable to keep up with the message’s clarity. 

Only recently, Obomsawin says, did they start diving into how Coleman and Cherry were indigenous and part of a relatively large tradition of indigenous jazz. 

“I started playing with Julia Keefe and Delbert Anderson,” they say, “both indigenous jazz musicians who have several spinoff projects, and making music with them we started to realize that we all had kind of like an indigenous jazz musician reference point, our entry point to feeling like a we had a place in jazz music. For Julia it was Mildred Bailey (Mrs. Swing!), for Delbert it was Jim Pepper, and for me it was Don Cherry.”

In proper free jazz tradition, the compositions here were roughly sketched out but then full of organic inspiration once everyone was recording over two days down at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut. Obomsawin told Ho Bynum, Noah Campbell, and Allison Burik in the indictment of the Catholic Church that is “Wawasint8da” to think of their horns like a church organ, paired with Savannah Harris’ military snare, but to “let their parts peel back like birch paper as it burns.” That results in some truly out there stuff, but then it resolves into something quiet and hymn-like and reverential. 

“I asked them to really channel their ancestors,” Obomsawin says, “or a specific chapter in the history of their family.” For the closing “Blood Quantum,” the artist “encouraged everyone to think about how Western science has been applied to their ancestors and specifically with a magnifying glass on their blood and the idea of blood purity, a really disgusting idea, and I hoped we’d get some dissonance out of that.” 

Certainly, an open and curious mind is helpful here, and hearing Obomsawin say you should receive the six songs as three semantic pairs (exploring first heritage, and then religion, and then colonization and how we address it) might help focus attention. The work is a challenge in more ways than one, regardless. And one well worth accepting. 

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected]

Mali Obomsawin plays with her sextet at the Portland Conservatory of Music, 28 Neal St., Portland on Friday, Oct. 28.

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