Drummer and composer releases 12-album '400: An Afrikan Epic'

Drummer/composer Mark Lomax will never do this again.

“This” refers to composing and recording 12 albums worth of original music for seven different ensembles, all released on the same day, as he recently did with 400: An Afrikan Epic. (The 12-album cycle is available for download at marklomaxii.com as of Jan. 23. A physical release is in the works; most distributors are not set up to release that much music all at once, Lomax said.)

The epic tells the story of Africa from pre-colonial and slavery times through the current era of Africans in diaspora. The 12 albums feature Lomax performing in solo, duo, trio and quartet settings, as well as accompanied by an African drum ensemble and string section. There is also one album of music for cello quartet. (Indeed, when I met Lomax at a Short North eatery, he was off to attend a performance of “Four Women” by Columbus cello quartet UCelli. The piece pays tribute to four black women who have championed social justice and equal rights.)

“Every album is a chapter in and of itself,” Lomax said. “You can't always address something in detail when you're talking about thousands of years of history, so there is a ton of subtext and metaphor throughout.”

The entire epic, which clocks in at about eight hours and 40 minutes in length, can't be performed all at once in a traditional concert setting, so Lomax has taken themes from throughout 400 and reconfigured them so they can all be performed by the Urban Art Ensemble, a chamber group featuring Lomax's quartet augmented by a string section, and including segments of new music composed that weave the various themes together. This suite will be premiered at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 26, in a concert sponsored by the Wexner Center for the Arts, which also presented Lomax with an Artist Residency Award that helped him complete the epic.

While Lomax, a self-described “blue-collar composer,” will take credit for the work done on 400, he said his inspiration came from a greater source.

“I feel like I have accomplished what I believe my ancestors told me to do: to tell our story,” Lomax said. “In so doing, I honored them. It came to me, and I accepted the mission impossible.”

The Wexner award isn't the only help Lomax has had in making the impossible possible. But at the project's heart is Lomax's dedication to his craft as a musician and composer, and also to the completion of the project. He was still fine-tuning the 400 suite that will be performed this weekend as recently as this past month. (“My family called me Scrooge because I was working through the holiday,” Lomax said.)

“This is definitely — I don't take this lightly — a magnum opus in the sense that I'll never do this again,” Lomax said. “I see [400] as a nexus. I think I've been telling these stories in some way or form all along, and there are a lot of roads that have led to this, but the world hasn't engaged the work in this way.

“So I see this as a sort of circle in the middle of a diagram, with offshoots, some of which came before the circle, and some that will grow out from it.”

For example, Lomax is close to finishing, “Uhuru,” a work for symphony orchestra that he described as “an addendum to the 12-album cycle.” Additionally, he discussed in some detail an oratorio he envisions that would delve more deeply into an important piece of the African-American history timeline that he was unable to address in detail in 400: Reconstruction.

But Lomax intends (or hopes, anyway) to give himself a break from composing for a while. Of course, in the meantime, there is more playing of 400 music that must be done. As just one example, Lomax and saxophonist Eddie Bayard, who form the Ogun Meji Duo, will perform again at the Lincoln Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 31, playing music from one of the 12 400 albums.

“There is so much to do with respect to this story, and lots of fodder for conversations,” Lomax said. “I wouldn't have it any other way.”