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Arts & Life

Kansas City Jazz Trumpeter Hermon Mehari Says His New Album Is A ‘Modern Mixtape Of Dreams’

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James O'Mara

Under stay-at-home orders in the French countryside, trumpeter Hermon Mehari spent two months working on the new album. He calls it his most personal work to date.

Jazz trumpeter Hermon Mehari grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, studied at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance in Kansas City, and served as a founding member of the award-winning jazz group Diverse.

For the last few years, Mehari has made his home in Paris, France. When stay-at-home orders went into effect, he sheltered-in-place in the Corrèze region of France.

“I took all my recording equipment with me,” he said, “just in case.”

His friends’ property in Bassignac-le-Bas, which overlooks the Dordogne River, had a barn set up as an artist’s studio, with a piano. He moved his equipment in, and without any upcoming gigs, decided to make a recording.

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The new album, Mehari's second, is called “A Change For The Dreamlike.” He released it on Bandcamp June 5.

“I needed to put all this music and creative energy into something,” he said. “I started writing music, recording it, producing the music, and getting all the guests to come and record their parts as well. They sent me their parts.”

Musicians based in France, such as pianist Tony Tixier, and DJ Hugo LX, were pulled in as remote collaborators, as well as ones he’d worked with in Kansas City, like vibraphonist and pianist Peter Schlamb.

“And, fortunately, everybody who I wanted for each song,” he said, “had their own means of recording well, which is a new thing nowadays.”

It was a new experience to record the songs in isolation, Mehari said.

“Normally, you’d write the song, you’d play it with the band, not even necessarily in the studio yet, even if you’re just rehearsing it," he said, "you can get feedback just from body language, or from the feeling. But it was just me.”

Mehari describes the songs on the recording as “personal journal entries” or a “modern mixtape of dreams.”

“Shenandoah,” a folk-song dating back to the 19th century, has ties to French travelers along the Missouri River.

“It’s a song I’ve loved for a long time and always wanted to record,” he said. “And then I heard it so clearly while out in the country. Being out in the French countryside reminded me a lot of being in mid-Missouri, in some ways.”

Other songs also have personal connections, including “A Conversation with My Uncle” and “Eritrea.”

“It’s a story about my father’s path as a refugee, leaving Eritrea (when) there was a big war between Eritrea and Ethiopia,” he said. “My dad passed a few years ago. And one of my biggest regrets is that I never got him to record his story. So I asked my uncle to do that.”

In “A Conversation with My Uncle,” Mehari accompanies his uncle’s storytelling on the trumpet. And the song “Eritrea” follows, with a “joyous feel to it.”

Mehari added, “My dad’s story as a refugee is not just his story, it’s really the story. It’s really representative of all refugees.”

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“I Cry For Our People,” features Ryan J. Lee, a fellow UMKC Conservatory student and member of Diverse.

“It’s an elegy for the African diaspora, the black diaspora across the world,” Mehari said.

“There’s rage, there’s more of simmering anger, there’s also sadness, there are also tears. It speaks to what’s happening now, of course.”

Lee was tapped for his musical abilities, and also for his own personal connection to the work. Ryan Stokes, an unarmed black man shot to death by a Kansas City police officer in 2013, is the father of Lee’s niece.

“Their family has felt a lot of pain from what happened,” he said. “I wasn’t explicit with him about what it’s about. I just wanted him to play and play like him. And that's part of his music.”

Mehari said it’s been an interesting experience to live as an American in France during the coronavirus pandemic, and now, to watch the spark of protests against police brutality and racism against Black people spread around the world.

“I am a bit guarded about being too optimistic,” he said. “A lot of friends I’m talking to feel a bit optimistic. They say, ‘No, things are changing.’ They said, ‘If you were here, you’d see, you’d feel it.’”

He added, “I hope that’s true, I really do. But being out here, you’re like an outsider looking in.”

Due to all the economic uncertainties, especially for friends in the music and service industries, Mehari said he released the new recording on Bandcamp to allow people to pay "what they want and what they can." And, he said, when the time is right, he'll return to Kansas City to celebrate the album's release.

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