Beyond Jazz, Beyond Music: Samora Pinderhughes Blurs the Lines Between Music, Poetry, and Activism


Last October, when Samora Pinderhughes released The Transformations Suite, his jazz and poetry ensemble work keyed to Black Lives Matter and the issues that drive it, the pianist and composer put it up for free, making purchase optional even though years of effort had gone into the project. “I wasn’t trying to have people buy it,” he says. “It was important for this project, because of its content, that there were no barriers for anybody.”

Pinderhughes, 25, doesn’t separate music and activism. He began writing the suite six years ago, while at Juilliard, rankled by the limits of the jazz performance program and seeking a wider canvas. “I studied with Kenny Barron, so I can’t complain,” he says. “But as far as making my own work, that was not my schooling. The suite allowed me to realize what I believe, at least at this point, is my purpose, which is to create projects that in some way address these larger questions, as well as hopefully being of artistic merit.”

So far, Pinderhughes is living up to his standard. At a time when many jazz artists are making work with a renewed political edge, Transformations Suite feels particularly complete. It opens with a soft, insistent drumroll, as if calling a restive assembly to purpose, before settling into a processional beat as the full sextet joins. “We shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye,” sings vocalist Jehbreal Jackson. “Give us justice….” In the course of six movements, the collection travels from contemplation to exaltation, anger to healing. It received rave reviews and a fresh set of concert dates, one of which aired in full on NPR’s Jazz Night in America the day before the presidential inauguration.

This week, the Transformations Suite receives its last New York performance for the foreseeable future, on Thursday, at Le Poisson Rouge’s monthly “We Resist!” event. At the same time, Pinderhughes will showcase some of his many other projects. Headlining with him are actor-rappers Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, whom he has known since his teenage years in Berkeley, California; the three have an ongoing electronic project. The concert will also feature clips from Whose Streets?, the “people’s documentary” on the Ferguson uprising by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, which premiered this year at Sundance; Pinderhughes wrote the score. “It’s going to be a giant hodgepodge celebration, but everything fits together,” he says.

Pinderhughes is a songwriter, too; he has written for Common, Herbie Hancock, and Lalah Hathaway, and for his own new band, called Venus. He is developing a multimedia installation on healing and trauma in communities racked by violence, guided by playwright Anna Deavere Smith. “We’re fortunate that Samora is involved in so many endeavors,” says pianist Vijay Iyer, whom Pinderhughes calls a mentor. “He’s a brilliant and engaged human being, as well as a wonderful musician full of ideas and promise.”

Pinderhughes lives uptown, in Hamilton Heights, where he shares an apartment with his younger sister, Elena, a brilliant flutist who has performed with numerous jazz greats, and is also currently recording her upcoming debut as a pop singer. Musicians from a young age, the siblings have long worked on each other’s projects. Their parents, a Black father raised in Boston and Sephardic mother from New York, are professors with a deep political streak. Samora was named for Samora Machel, the Mozambican revolutionary.

“It’s a family thing,” Pinderhughes says. “Even if we hadn’t lived in the Bay, I would still be political, radical, super-duper Black.” Still, the regional setting, with its strong and overlapping jazz, poetry, and hip-hop communities, was key to his creative growth. He is an alumnus of the Berkeley High School jazz band, which produced saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Benny Green, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and many others. He also attended another crucial local institution: the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra.

It was a supportive scene, Pinderhughes says. “That’s what’s cool about the East Bay: It’s very community oriented, and the old heads would look out for the younger cats.” Artists who had moved to New York would come back for visits and catch up with the next crop at the homes of the local teachers they all shared. “They would come and see them and kick it, and we would just be there, and that’s how we’d meet them,” he says.

Pinderhughes imagines he’ll move back to California eventually. “I do see myself at some point wanting to have a family, and that’s the only place I’d want to raise my kids,” he says. For now, he feels he’s finally at ease in New York City, after years of trying to find his comfort zone and community. For his new band, Venus, a quintet that includes Elena but otherwise a different roster than the Transformations Suite regulars, he is writing and singing songs from his private side, catching up with his feelings. “It’s a very personal project, about relationships and different losses I’ve sustained,” he says. “It’s very different from the macro level that was The Transformations Suite.”

His method has not changed, however. When working on a project, he immerses himself in a set of music and books, for months at a time. For the suite, it was Marvin Gaye, the poems of Saul Williams, the Wayne Shorter’s Classic Blue Note Recordings, Nina Simone, Schumann’s song cycles, Tupac’s Me Against the World. These days his diet includes Frank Ocean, Laura Mvula, James Blake, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Gabriel García Márquez’s autobiography, and August Wilson’s plays. “And I’m always reading [James] Baldwin, because he’s my hero. That’s a constant.”

Pinderhughes’s mix of projects and inspirations signals the limits of “jazz” as a category today. Some musicians reject the term on political grounds; he generally agrees, but feels it’s not worth the debate. “That argument is a waste of time because it’s all outdated,” he says. “Not only am I past the word jazz, I’m past the word music. I’m not interested in being limited by any barriers of what I’m supposed to be. And I think almost every musician that I know in my generation feels that way.”

We Resist! presents Samora Pinderhughes, Daveed Diggs, & Rafael Casal at Le Poisson Rouge, April 20, at 7 p.m. Info: 212-505-3474,