Urban Counterpoint: The Piano Music of Ed Bland is the second release of the music of the late Chicago composer Ed Bland by Cambria Master Recordings. Bland’s instrumental compositions were the focus of an earlier album, Urban Classical: The Music of Ed Bland (1994). However, the focus of Urban Counterpoint is on Bland’s piano works. Performed and interpreted by pianist Judith Olson, the album explores his genre-blending compositions which incorporate “a broad range of textures and diverse rhythms” from the early 20th-century Western European music canon as well as jazz, gospel, and West African rhythms.
Paul Moravec’s 2017
oratorio, Sanctuary Road, is a
modern take on the classical oratorio form, portraying stories from the
Underground Railroad rather than Biblical content. The libretto by Mark
Campbell interprets slave narratives collected and published in 1872 in The Underground Railroadby William Still (1821–1902) of Philadelphia, a “conductor” who aided many
fugitive slaves including his older brother. Some of the song texts are
literal, as when Still interviews an escapee he has sheltered, but at other
times more poetic, consisting of single words or phrases joined together to
portray the collective experience of the enslaved who escaped to
freedom. The oratorio’s title, however, was inspired
by the modern concept of “Sanctuary City,” bringing contemporary resonance to
the composition. The sixteen movement work for five soloists, chorus and
orchestra was commissioned by Jody Spellun, a member
of the Oratorio Society
of New York, and this live recording captures the
world premiere performance at Carnegie Hall by the OSNY Chorus and Orchestra
under the baton of Kent Tritle.
The songs and spoken excerpts that comprise Bound for the Promised Land: Songs and Words of Equality and Freedom were performed live during the Atlanta Music Festival in 2016 at Ebenezer Baptist Church and Glenn Memorial Auditorium at Emory University. The Atlanta Music Festival was first created in 1910 after the Atlanta Race Riots and revived in 2001 by Pastor Dwight Andrews. The purpose of the festival at its inception was to introduce the world to renowned African American concert musicians. The music featured on Bound for the Promised Land does not disappoint and holds true to the original mission of the festival, with works by Dorothy Rudd Moore, T. J. Anderson, Duke Ellington, John Carter and Adolphus Hailstork. Guest artists include the late soprano Jessye Norman, who performs on four songs, tenor Timothy B. Miller, and narrators Taylor Branch and Rev. Robert M. Franklin, Jr.
Title: Spark Catchers Artist: Chineke! Orchestra & Chorus Label: NMC Formats: CD, Digital Release date: January 17, 2020
Royal Academy of Music professor and double
bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku
has a laudable mission: championing change and celebrating diversity in
classical music. Through her Chineke!
Foundation, Nwanoku nurtures new
generations of talent by commissioning works and supporting music education
programs including a youth orchestra. Her flagship group, the Chineke! Orchestra, was founded in 2015 and is comprised of Black and Minority Ethnic
(BME) classical musicians working in the UK and Europe. The orchestra recently
won the inaugural Royal Philharmonic Society
for filling the stage with BME artists, drawing a far more diverse audience to
concert halls, and “restoring BME composers past and present to their rightful
place amongst those we regularly revere.” These achievements are showcased on
the Chineke! Orchestra’s latest album, Spark Catchers. Featuring works by six of the UK’s
leading BME composers, the performances (except where otherwise noted) are led
by African American conductor Anthony Parnther, music director of the
Southeast Symphony in Los Angeles and the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.
Title: Elgar Artist: Sheku Kanneh-Mason, London Symphony Orchestra Label: Decca Classics Formats: CD, LP, Digital Release date: January 10, 2020
London-born cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason rose to prominence in the UK after winning the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016 and received international attention for his performance at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018. A member of the remarkably talented Kanneh-Mason family, 20-year-old Sheku has often performed with his six brothers and sisters, all classically trained musicians between the ages of 10-23. His debut album,Inspiration, was released in 2016 on the prestigious Decca Classics label (his sister, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, is also signed to Decca). On his sophomore album, Elgar, Sheku performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, plus several short chamber pieces by Elgar and other composers. As a testament to the number of people inspired by the young musician, Elgar is already a best seller, making Kanneh-Mason the first classical musician to break into the Top 10 of the UK album charts in over 30 years, a position currently shared with grime star Stormzy.
American soprano Katherine Jolly has graced many opera stages over the course of her budding career. After winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finale in 2006, she went on to perform with the New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Florida Grand Opera, among others. In concert repertoire, Jolly has taken the route of many lyric sopranos, specializing in the repertoire of Bach, Handel and Mozart. On her debut recording Preach Sister Preach, however, she selected three contemporary works by young American composers. The project was undertaken while Jolly was on the voice faculty at the IU Jacobs School of Music (JSOM), and was recorded on the stage of Auer Hall in 2018 and early 2019 by audio engineer D. James Tagg, who is also on the JSOM faculty.Continue reading →
Title: The String Queens
Artist: The String Queens
Release date: November 25, 2019
Renowned for their genre spanning repertoire, the Washington, D.C. based trio The String Queens have been changing the ways audiences engage with classical music. The three women—Kendall Isadore (violin), Dawn Johnson (viola), and Élise Cuffy (cello)—are “school teachers by day and concert performers by night” who have a strong commitment to artistic integrity and music education. Though they might not yet be a household name, you have likely heard TSQ backing artists such as Solange, Janelle Monae, and Jennifer Hudson, as well as Aloe Blacc on his recent video of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” filmed on the grounds of Monticello. The trio has also been featured on concert stages around the world, including Carnegie Hall, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Royal Festival Hall, and Shanghai Grand Theatre.Continue reading →
The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs, featuring music of composer Margaret Bonds, is a much needed album that will play an important role in bringing Bonds the wider recognition she deserves. A number of renowned artists, stretching from the present day back to Bonds’ lifetime, have recorded Bonds’ shorter compositions including her art songs and spiritual settings, as well as her sole published piece for solo piano, “Troubled Water.” But this performance by The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra—with soprano Laquita Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, tenor Noah Stewart, and conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather—iis the world-premiere recording of not only The Ballad of the Brown King, but of any large-scale composition by Bonds, as most remain unpublished, much less professionally recorded.
Coinciding with the 2019-20 season’s acclaimed opening production of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and the exhibition Black Voices at the Met, the Metropolitan Opera offers a third blockbuster with Black Voices Rise: African American Artists at the Met. This compilation of performances by Black artists from 1955 to 1985 celebrates the talent and “overdue arrival” of these history-making singers. The album opens with a performance by Marian Anderson, who broke the Met’s color barrier with her debut in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in 1955. Other featured performers include celebrated stars Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle, George Shirley, and Jessye Norman, among others. Black Voices Rise also includes rare excerpts from the Met’s 1985 company-premiere of Porgy and Bess starring Simon Estes and Roberta Alexander. The extensive liner notes by Dr. Maurice Wheeler include a brief history of African American performers at the Metropolitan Opera and the struggle for racial equality, as well as biographies of the singers included in the compilation. All recordings were restored and remastered from the original analog tapes, allowing these voices to triumph yet again.Continue reading →
When Gabriel Prokofiev called Branford Marsalis to see if he had any thoughts on the new saxophone concerto he was about to compose, Branford had one request: “make it melodic.” So Prokofiev took it upon himself to write, as he says, “a classical concerto,” but one that combines his love of jazz with classical elements in a harmonious and syncretic way.Continue reading →
Artist: Devonté Hynes & Third Coast Percussion
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: October 11, 2019
Devonté Hynes, perhaps better known as R&B artist Blood Orange, has covered a lot of musical ground in his career. He recently released his fifth album, Angel’s Pulse, under his Blood Orange persona, and he previously produced indie rock music under the name Lightspeed Champion. Many of Dev’s fans might be unaware, however, of his love of classical music and his 2018 debut at the Kennedy Center as one of four pianists performing Philip Glass’s 20 Etudes. Now, with the release of Fields, featuring Hynes collaboration with the Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion, he makes his recording debut as a composer in the classical music world.Continue reading →
Decca Classics has released a remarkable collaboration between Grammy-winning jazz composer Wynton Marsalis and violin virtuoso Nicola Benedetti. Marsalis’s Violin Concerto in D and his Fiddle Dance Suite for solo violin were recently recorded by Benedetti, the former performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Cristian Mǎcelaru. These two works represent new heights in Marsalis’s compositional style as he deftly mixes classical music with other idioms.Continue reading →
The Mask in the Mirror, a three-act chamber opera from composer and pianist Richard Thompson, portrays turmoil and tragedy in this dramatization of the courtship and marriage of renowned African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) and author Alice Ruth Moore (1875-1935). Conducted by Stephen Tucker, The Sanaa Opera Project released a recording of The Mask in the Mirror earlier this year. Featuring tenor Cameo Humes in the role of Paul and soprano Angela Owens as Alice, with mezzo-soprano Lindsay Patterson Abdou in several supporting familial roles, The Mask in the Mirror balances man against woman, jazz against classical composition, and society against self in a rise of tension that resolves only with end of their relationship and Paul’s subsequent surrender to tuberculosis.Continue reading →
Jamaican-born British composer Eleanor Alberga has received more attention in the past few years since her piece, Arise, Athena!, opened the final concert of the BBC Proms in 2015. This recording of her string quartets highlights some earlier compositions, in which her modernist sensibilities are at the fore. Alberga utilizes many compositional tools in her vast toolbox to bring drama to three very different works, all composed within an eight-year period from 1993-2001. Working in a combination of modernist and postmodern idioms, Alberga has not forgotten harmonic tension and release and plenty of repetition; this is not to say that her music is conservative, but that it is refreshingly expressive and has an engaging sense of narrative and rhythmic drive, honed from her training as a composer for modern dance. Continue reading →
Title: Black Swans
Release date: August 23, 2019
As many readers are no doubt aware, Black Swan was the first major record label in the country to be owned and run by African Americans for the exclusive promotion of Black artists. Founded in 1921 during the Harlem Renaissance by publisher Harry Pace, the company also involved other luminaries: a young Fletcher Henderson served as recording director and de facto accompanist, William Grant Still was hired as composer/arranger, and W.E.B. DuBois was an early investor. At a time when white-owned labels were developing “race” series and limiting Black artists to recording blues, jazz, and gospel music, Black Swan expanded its catalog to include classical singers and instrumentalists, documenting the performance practices of a phenomenal group of concert artists. Now, almost 100 years later, Black Swan classical 78s are very rare and most have neverbeen reissued! This groundbreaking new compilation, Black Swans, includes the first recordings of black classical artists from the label’s short-lived 7100 operatic series, in addition to other rarities.Continue reading →
Born in segregated Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Florence Price attended the New England Conservatory when local schools refused to admit her, studying composition with George Whitefield Chadwick. Although she returned to Arkansas for a time, she and her daughters moved to Chicago in 1927 due to increased racial violence in Little Rock. There, she met prominent members of the Chicago’s African American arts scene such as Estelle Bonds, whose daughter, Margaret Bonds, became one of Price’s students. Though primarily known today as a composer of songs, notably “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” and “Songs to the Dark Virgin” popularized by Marian Anderson, Price was also the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony No. 1 at the World’s Fair in 1933). Unfortunately, many of her works were largely forgotten after her death, with major conductors like Serge Koussevitzky declining to program her symphonies. In fact, several of her works, including the Fourth Symphony recorded here, were thought to be lost until the manuscripts were rediscovered in a house in St. Anne, Illinois. This symphony was never performed during Price’s lifetime, and is instead receiving its premiere on this CD.Continue reading →
Title: Gershwin & Goodyear
Artist: Stewart Goodyear
Label: Orchid Classics
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: June 7, 2019
Young pianist Stewart Goodyear already has several accolades. Described as “a phenomenon” by the Los Angeles Times, he has performed with leading orchestras in North America, Europe, and Asia. In addition to his success as a performer, recording classical repertoire standards such as Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Diabelli Variations and piano concertos by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg, among others, Goodyear is also an accomplished improviser and composer. This new recording allows him to showcase both sets of talents, with a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in its original jazz band orchestration paired with Goodyear’s own Piano Sonata and his suite for piano and orchestra, Callaloo. He is accompanied by Chineke!, an orchestra founded in 2015 to give career opportunities to young Black and minority ethnic performers in Europe. The group’s founder, Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, stated that her “aim is to create a space where [Black and minority ethnic] musicians can walk on stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word.” For this recording, the musicians perform under the baton of celebrated Black conductor and pianist, Wayne Marshall.Continue reading →
Title: Winged Creatures and Other Works for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra
Artist: Demarre McGill, Anthony McGill
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: May 10, 2019
This is not the first time brothers Demarre and Anthony McGill have recorded together on the Chicago-based Cedille label—an earlier album, Portraits (2017), with pianist Michael McHale showcased works for flute, clarinet, and piano trio. In their new release, the McGill brothers emphasize their orchestral roots with four works for flute, clarinet, and orchestra. The album features two world premiere recordings: African American composer Michael Abels’ titular Winged Creatures and Joel Puckett’s Concerto Duo, each commissioned by the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) for the McGill brothers. Both Demarre and Anthony are principal performers with some of the top orchestras in the country (Demarre as principal flutist with the Seattle Symphony and Anthony as principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic) and their musicianship is clear throughout this recording. Both performers have a beautiful fluidity to their tones and incredibly precise technique—they are masterfully in synch in terms of timbre, intonation, and timing. They are also wonderfully supported by the CYSO led by Music Director Allen Tinkham; it is easy to forget that the orchestral musicians are not professionals themselves.Continue reading →
Title: Road Runner
Artist: Ayanna Witter-Johnson
Label: Hill and Gully Records
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: April 26, 2019
A singer, songwriter, and cellist in a class all her own, Ayanna Witter-Johnson has taken a classic R&B sound and turned it on its head. Born in the UK, Ayanna has been honing her craft for quite some time now, earning music degrees from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Manhattan School of Music. She has worked as a composer and arranger with both Hugh Masekela and the London Symphony Orchestra as well as the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Ayanna has released several EPs—Truthfully Still (2011), Black Panther (2015) and Ella, Reuben & Ay (2018)—and now offers her full-length debut album Road Runner.Continue reading →
Title: Blues Dialogues
Artist: Rachel Barton Pine
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: October 19, 2018
In 1997, violinist Rachel Barton Pine presented her landmark album, Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th & 19th Centuries, on the Cedille Records label. Released 21 years later, Blues Dialogues is the most recent culmination of Pine’s ongoing research into music by Black composers. Going beyond the confines of Western classical music, her new project features twelve works that draw upon the African American experience and more specifically, blues idioms, which the violinist claims is her “second-favorite genre of music.” This is certainly a fitting sentiment for a Chicago native, especially one who has polished her blues chops by jamming with two local legends—Son Seals and Sugar Blue.Continue reading →
Title: Sisters in Song Artists: Alyson Cambridge and Nicole Cabell
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: September 21, 2018
Sisters in Song represents the first collaboration between world-renowned American sopranos Alyson Cambridge and Nicole Cabell. The pair met nearly two decades ago in the Chautauqua Institution’s Summer Voice Program where they became fast friends, colleagues, and—for lack of a better phrase—sisters in song. As both Cabell and Cambridge are in-demand sopranos, their paths have continued to cross in their professional and personal lives. In the liner notes for the album, the two write that they “both had the desire to create an album together that allowed us to show our various musical sides and voices in harmony.”Continue reading →
Songs from Chicago, performed by one of America’s leading baritones, Thomas Hampson, is a collection of art songs from composers associated with mid-twentieth century Chicago. Though five composers are featured in this project (including Ernst Bacon and Louis Campbell-Tipton), of particular interest to our readers are the works by African American composers Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, as well as John Alden Carpenter—all of whom draw upon the poems of Langston Hughes.Continue reading →
Title: Here Today
Artist: Alicia Hall Moran
Label: dist. by CD Baby
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: December 21, 2017
Multifaceted mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, who recently starred in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning production of Porgy and Bess, has embarked on a variety of significant projects over the past few years. Her critically acclaimed staged concert work, Black Wall Street, follows a path from Oklahoma and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 to New York’s Wall Street—which not coincidentally traces her own family’s journey. Continue reading →
Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, is set to open on August 10th. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix, the work has already received positive reviews. Composer and jazz musician Terence Blanchard’s soundtrack for the film has yet to be released, but his previous film compositions can give an idea of what the score might sound like.
Released in late 2017, Terence Blanchard: Music for Film spans his film work from the 1992 Malcolm X to 2015’s Chi-Raq, performed here by the Brussels Philharmonic under the direction of Dirk Brossé as part of the Film Fest Gent’s series of film composer spotlights. Like the upcoming BlacKkKlansman, many of Blanchard’s works presented on this album, including music from Malcolm X, 25th Hour, and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, have been in collaboration with director Spike Lee. The collaboration has proven fruitful for Blanchard, who has said that Lee always encourages him to write music that could be successful on its own.
Though each film presented has its own unique sound, the tracks are connected by a strong presence of trumpet, calling back to Blanchard’s own career as a jazz trumpeter. Many also make use of jazz idioms, most notably the two tracks from When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006). Although he calls New Orleans home and this film is a documentary describing the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Blanchard intentionally stays away from traditional New Orleans jazz. Instead, he explains that he wanted to create a more universal sound to appeal to a wider audience and the musical themes he created do just that, blending jazz with incredibly emotive melodies depicting the tragedy and despair of the city’s residents. The “Levees” track is particularly successful, combining a soulful trumpet line with descending, dissonant string patterns.
Another film directed by Spike Lee, 25th Hour, received much critical acclaim; Blanchard’s score was nominated for several awards, including the 2003 World Soundtrack Award and Golden Globes. Telling the story of a drug dealer’s last 24 hours of freedom before he is sent to jail, the music is haunting and memorable. Heavier on strings, particularly solo cello, than many of his other films, it features twisting musical themes above persistent ostinato patterns. Still, it is not without Blanchard’s signature jazz inflections, as the third track on the album, “Playground,” embraces a traditional lounge-style piano along with the lusher string sound and solos present in the other selections.
Some selections, such as the suite from Inside Man (2006) and the opening title music of Miracle at St. Anna (2008), lean less on Blanchard’s jazz background and instead seem to be reminiscent of earlier film music styles like the compositions of James Horner. Tracks on this album from both films make use of a more militaristic style, emphasizing repetitive snare drum lines underneath epic brass and string melodies.
Two comedies, Bamboozled (2000) and She Hate Me (2004), showcase other sides of Blanchard’s work. The former’s biting satire and pointed social commentary are offset by a more somber, restrained musical theme. In contrast, the selections from She Hate Me are a bit less serious, incorporating several jazz styles including references to bebop, fusion, and cool jazz.
Blanchard’s skill in composing for a wide range of genres shines through the tracks presented in this album. His masterful usages of thematic material, blending of styles, and jazz inflections make this an incredibly rewarding listen. Blanchard’s score for BlacKkKlansman is sure to deliver the same exciting interplay of styles.
Although it has been just over 40 years since his death, legendary jazz pianist Erroll Garner’s music vibrantly lives on thanks to the record labels who have championed his work. First, Sony Legacy released The Complete Concert By The Sea in 2015 as well asReady Take Onethe following year, both of which received major award consideration. Now the people behind Mack Avenue Records have continued efforts to keep Garner’s memory alive with their new release,
Nightconcert. The title is drawn from Garner’s midnight concert in November 1964 at The Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, captured live with an audience of 2000 highly enthusiastic and enraptured people of all ages. This concert recording displays Garner at the height of his career, with eight unique arrangements of classic standards as well as a newly discovered original!
Erroll Garner, was born June 25th, 1923 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He may be best remembered for his composition, “Misty,” which has become a treasured classic for jazz lovers and standard repertoire for every jazz musician to this very day. Beginning his study of the piano at age three, Garner took lessons from a family friend but he was primarily self-taught and remained an “ear-player” his entire life, never learning to read music. By age 11 his career was well on its way as he played piano on Allegheny riverboats and at 14 he began playing with well-known saxophonist Leroy Brown. Garner went on to enjoy a successful career working with other greats like bassist Slam Stewart and bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker on the “Cool Blues” sessions. He also made regular appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Nightconcert is an instant classic piano trio album as Garner displays his incomparable style and virtuosity. Opening with the Rogers and Hart classic “Where or When,” Garner chooses to begin this and many other songs with elaborate piano introductions, often with the intent of throwing off the audience so they don’t know what song is coming. He seems to have a tendency to play a hemiola in these intros by maintaining a triple meter in the left hand while playing in a duple meter in the right. He makes this especially prevalent later in the album with the song “Night and Day” as he carries this idea from the introduction throughout the rest of the tune. This is indicative of Garner’s overall style—his right hand typically lays back behind the beat as his left hand drives steadily along—often used as a powerful function to begin and end his slick phrases. As the concert continues, Garner jumps between his up-tempo tunes and lush ballads such as “My Funny Valentine” and “Over The Rainbow,” where he enraptures listeners with his thick and unique chord voicing.
Garner’s playing is unlike any others and simply hearing his live performance on Nightconcert is a truly unique experience—from his iconic groans that can be heard on every record, to his astounding skill and mastery over the piano. Great thanks must be extended to those at Mack Avenue Records for releasing yet another historical recording that keeps Garner’s body of work alive for a new generation.
Following are additional albums released during July 2018—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country
Arthur Big Boy Crudup: If I Get Lucky (4 CD set) (JSP)
Benny Turner: Journey (Nola Blue)
Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio: Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here (Alligator)
Errol Dixon: Midnight Train (Wolf)
Eugene Hideaway Bridges: Live In Tallahassee (Armadillo)
Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear: The Radio Winners (Glassnote)
Trudy Lynn: Blues Keep Knockin’ (Connor Ray Music)
SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical – Original Cast (Republic)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic
Con Brio: Explorer (Transistor Sound/Fat Beats)
Ill Doots: S/T (Ropedope)
Jean Beauvoir: Rock Masterpieces Vol. 1 (Aor Heaven)
Lotic: Power (Tri Angle)
No Kind of Rider: Savage Coast
Gospel, Christian Bishop Noel Jones & City of Refuge Sanctuary Choir: Run to the Altar (Tyscot)
Dr. Carmela Nanton: A Touch (Carmel Ministries)
Koryn Hawthorne: Unstoppable (RCA Inspiration)
Minister Marion Hall: His Grace (VPAL Music)
Shana Wilson Williams: Everlasting (Intersound)
Vincent Tharpe & Kenosis: Super Excited (digital)
Will Mcmillan: My Story (eOne)
Jazz Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band: West Side Story Reimagined (Jazz Heads)
David Garfield: Jammin’ Outside the Box
Dexter Gordon Quartet: Tokyo 1975 (Elemental Music)
Ernest Dawkins & New Horizons Ensemble: Chicago Now – Thirty Years of Great Black Music, Vol. 2 (Silkheart)
Erroll Garner: Nightconcert (Mack Ave.)
Jamar Jones: Fatherless Child (GPE)
Jim Stephens: Songs of Healing: Philasippiola Soul (1997-2017) (Ropedope)
Kaidi Tatham: It’s A World Before You (First Word)
Reginald Chapman: Prototype (Fresh Selects)
Rob Dixon Trio: Coast To Crossroads
Roy Campbell & Pyramid: Communion (digital)
Shaun Martin: Focus (Ropeadope)
Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra: Get It How You Live (Ropeadope)
Various: Prince in Jazz: A Jazz Tribute to Prince (Wagram)
Woody Shaw: Tokyo 1981 (Elemental Music)
R&B, Soul Appleby: Happiness (Haight Brand)
Cyril Neville: Endangered Species, Complete Recordings (World Order)
Jade Novah: All Blue (Empire)
Jaden Smith: SYRE (Digital) (Roc Nation/Republic)
James Brown: Mutha’s Nature (1st CD release) (LMLR)
Johnny Rain: Idol Blue (digital) (Odd Dream Republic)
Jr Jones: Nova (Black Musa)
Kiana Ledé: Selfless EP (Digital) (Republic)
Kizzy Crawford: Progression (Freestyle)
Meli’sa Morgan: Love Demands
The Internet: Hive Mind (Columbia)
Rap, Hip Hop BrvndonP: Better Late Than Never (RPSMG)
B.o.B.: Naga (digital) (No Genre)
Blackgrits: Paradox 88 (digital)
Blackway: Good.Bad.Faded EP (digital) (Republic)
Buddy: Harlan & Alondra (digital) (RCA)
Busdriver: Electricity is on our Side (digital)
Cardi B: Her Life Her Story (DVD) (Intrinem Films)
Chief Keef: Mansion Musick (RBC)
Citro: No Cap (PlayMakaz Music Group)
Curren$y & Harry Fraud: Marina (Next)
Demrick: Came a Long Way (digital) (DEM)
Drake: Scorpion (Cash Money)
Drank Sanatra: Controlled Substance (digital) (Otherside Ent.)
Dyme-A-Duzin: Crown Fried (digital)
Eric B. & Rakim: Complete Collection (Hip-O)
Future: Beastmode (mixtape)
J. Diggs: #90Dayhousearrestproject (Rompt Out)
Kanye West: Ye (Def Jam)
King Magnetic: Back in the Trap (King Mag Music)
KR: In Due Time (Empire)
Kyle: Light of Mine (Atlantic)
Lil KeKe: SlfMade II (digital) (SoSouth)
Logic: Passion (DVD) (Intrinem Films)
Marlowe: Marlowe (Mello Music Group)
Migos: Evolution (DVD) (Intrinem Films)
Nav: Reckless (XO/Republic)
Nick Grant: Dreamin’ Out Loud (digital) (Epic)
Obuxum: H.E.R. (Urbnet)
Pawz One & Robin Da Landlord: Sell Me a Dream (Below System)
Philthy Rich: N.E.R.N.L. 4 (Empire)
Planet Asia: Mansa Musa (X-Ray)
Playboi Carti: Die Lit (digital) (Interscope)
Pusha T: Daytona (digital) (Def Jam)
Rae Sremmurd: SR3MM (digital) (Interscope)
Randy-B: Me, Myself and $ (Smeat)
Royce 5’9″: Book of Ryan (eOne)
Saweetie: High Maintenance (Warner Bros.)
Stalley: Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, Vol 3 (Blue Collar Gang)
Styles P (The LOX): G-Host (The Phantom Ent.)
Suspect: Still Loading (digital) (Rinse)
Tee Grizzley: Activated (digital) (300 Ent.)
Tobe Nwigwe: The Originals (digital)
Trap Gang Zone: Follow The Gang (digital) (Revenge Music)
Trick Daddy: Dunk Ride Or Duck Down (X-Ray)
Typical Div: S/T (Middle of Made)
Various: Oscillations (Strange Neighbor)
Wiz Khalifa: Rolling Papers 2 (digital) (Atlantic)
Wood & Yungman: Carlito’s Way Screwed (GT Digital)
World’s Fair: New Lows (digital) (Fool’s Gold)
YFN Lucci: Ray Ray from Summerhill (Think It’s A Game)
Zaytoven: Trapholizay (digital) (UMG)
Reggae Kabaka Pyramid: Kontraband (Bebble Rock)
Kingly T: Got It All (digital)
Leon & The Peoples: Love Is A Beautiful Thing (Spectra Music Group)
Linval Thompson: Dub Landing Vols. 1 & 2 (Greensleeves)
Mad Professor: Electro Dubclubbing (Ariwa Sounds)
Santigold: I Don’t Want, Gold Fire Sessions (digital) (Downtown)
Tetrack: Let’s Get Started (Greensleeves)
U-Roy: Talking Roots (Ariwa Sounds)
Ziggy Marley: Rebellion Rises (Tuff Gong)
International, Latin Bryant Myers: La Oscuridad (eOne)
Kamal Keila: Muslims & Christians (Habibi Funk)
Mulatu Astatke & His Ethiopian Quintet: Afro-Latin Soul (Strut)
Okonkolo: Cantos (Big Crown)
Te’Amir: Abyssinia EP (Tru Thoughts)
Born in 1871, James Weldon Johnson is perhaps best known in musical circles as the brother of composer John Rosamond Johnson, who set his poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to music in 1900. But James was also a towering literary figure, among other accomplishments, and one of his best known works is God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, first published in 1927. Based on an old folk sermon that began with the creation of the world and ended with the Judgement Day,” the book of poems is now considered a classic of American literature.
American composer and baritone Gordon Myers (1919-2006) set God’s Trombones to music in 1966. The oratorio was Myer’s doctoral thesis composition and he articulated his goals as follows: “Approaching the task, I kept the sound of a church choir, the lilt of a folk song, and the vitality of the Negro Spiritual in my ear, and set out to blend them into one consistent idiom.”
In 1995, the premiere recording of the work was released by Paraclete Press, performed by Gloriae Dei Cantores conducted by Elizabeth C. Petterson, with Myers as the featured baritone. Based in Orleans, Mass., Gloriae Dei Cantores has a mission to “preserve in recordings worthy American sacred music that would otherwise be neglected,” and consequently decided to reissue their 1995 recording of God’s Trombones, with original liner notes and song texts included. Those who do not own a copy of the original release should certainly consider this new version. It must be noted, however, that the movement “Let My People Go” was sacrificed due to time constraints on the original pressing. Regrettably, the new release is also incomplete—it’s a pity is wasn’t expanded to a two-CD set, but presumably the missing movement was simply not recorded during the 1995 session.
Sometimes it takes a royal wedding to bring musical talents to light. Such is the case with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Though the London-born musician was already a celebrity in the UK, the rest of the world took notice during his televised performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19. Now his debut album is topping the charts and fans can’t seem to get enough.
The 19-year-old cellist plays like Yo-Yo Ma and cites the late Jacqueline du Pré as an early influence. After winning the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016, Kanneh-Mason was signed to the prestigious Decca Classics label. Inspiration, released earlier this year, proves his mastery through a mix of the classics and arrangements of popular songs.
Kanneh-Mason opens the album with an arrangement of the Hebrew song “Evening of Roses” (aka “Erev Shel Shoshanim”), then segues into the frequently performed chestnut “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals.” Next is “Song of the Birds” arranged by another cello great, Pablo Casals. All three are accompanied by the CBSO cello section.
The full City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, comes on board for Shostakovich. First, a beautiful rendition of his “Nocturne” from The Gadfly Suite, followed by Cello Concerto No. 1, which Kanneh-Mason performs brilliantly. One would expect no less since it was his performance of this work at the BBC competition that clinched his award.
The album concludes with four additional arrangements that demonstrate Kanneh-Mason’s beautiful tone and musical maturity: “Les larmes de Jacqueline” from Offenbach’s cello suite Harmonies des Bois, Op. 76; Casal’s arrangement of Sardana; and two popular favorites—Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The latter, arranged for strings, includes assistance from three other young musicians—violinist Didier Osindero, violist Alinka Rowe and cellist Yong Jun Lee.
None of the above were performed during the royal wedding, which included Après un Rêve by Gabriel Fauré, Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis and Schubert’s Ave Maria, but for those who want more of Kanneh-Mason, the wedding performance is available on video. He will also be touring throughout Europe this summer and fall, with three performances scheduled in Seattle in October. No doubt he will be filling those seats!
This month’s top picks include a new recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 performed by Er-Gene Kahng, and “American Songster” Dom Flemons’ collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways on an exploration of the music of Black Cowboys.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), with April 30th designated as International Jazz Appreciation Day. Jazz and social justice is the contextual lens for JAM this year, showcasing the progressive ways jazz continues to play a transformative role with respect to the civil rights of individuals from multiple facets of society. The jazz collaborations of both Wynton Marsalis Septet’s United We Sing and Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette‘s After The Fall demonstrate the excellence that prevails when groups work collectively towards a common goal. Don’t Play with Love released by the John L. Nelson Project showcases the formidable talents of Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, both of whom fostered positive inspiration in others through their artistic legacies. Perseverance plays a central role in Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete and saxophonist Lekecia Benjamin’s Rise Up, as both albums urge continuance despite the cost. Young Street by bassist Reggie Young rounds out this category with a blend of jazz and funk.
As a scholar specializing in the art songs of Florence Price, it is always a special treat to spend time with her instrumental music! The recent release of Er-Gene Kahng (violinist) and the Janaček Philharmonic’s recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 is representative of the growing buzz surrounding the works of Florence Price. Since the University of Arkansas Special Collections’ acquisition of formerly unknown manuscripts in Price’s hand, scholars and musicians have flocked to this diverse and expressive repertory.
The liner notes of the recording, provided by renowned scholar of American orchestral music Douglas Shadle, provide a thorough musical analysis. Therefore, I will focus on the particularities of this recording as well as some interesting semiotic aspects.
Er-Gene Kahng’s virtuosity is on full display in her sensitive execution of the alternately cantabile and brilliant style melodies of Violin Concerto No. 2 (track one). I am immediately struck by the timbral variance that the Janaček Philharmonic achieves under the guidance of conductor Ryan Cockerham. The tumultuous and heroic final section avoids a colorless and bombastic fortissimo in favor of a broadness and majesty. This can be attributed to the sensitive shaping of phrases by the string sections, and the stunning ensemble of the woodwinds and brass. While Shadle refers to Price’s first violin concerto as “an episodic rhapsody on a sweeping opening theme first stated by the orchestral strings,” a similar approach is evident in Violin Concerto No. 2. The rhapsodic tone can be attributed to the abandonment of a clear-cut sonata form in favor of introducing additional motivic material. Price displays a preference for introducing multiple motives of differing contour and harmonic complexity and reconciling the material with a loose recapitulation that serves the purpose of concluding the piece in a way that is harmonically closed. However, the return of the A section is usually not a verbatim quotation, and often riffs on or further develops themes introduced in the exposition.
Given the time period of the composer’s milieu (1888-1953), as well as the pressure from the Harlem Renaissance bourgeoisie for “Negro uplift,” it may be expected that Price would include quotations of Negro Spirituals in this piece. After all, Alain Locke lauded Harry Burleigh’s concert spirituals, and favored William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony. As Shadle states, “Under the influence of Dvorak and, later, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, younger musicians like J. Rosamond Johnson and Harry Burleigh continued to theorize about how to best incorporate the spirituals into the living musical practices of African Americans.” I, along with Shadle, note the way in which Price enfolds some of the signifiers of the Spiritual (blue notes, layered polyphony, and pentatonicism for example) in her orchestral pieces like the Symphony in E minor without directly quoting the spirituals. Rather, she creates an organic synthesis of her conservatory training and her roots in Afrological music. In a class essay quoted by Shadle, Price states, “We are even beginning to believe in the possibility of establishing a national musical idiom. We are waking up to the fact pregnant with possibilities that we already have a folk music in the Negro spirituals—music which is potent, poignant, compelling. It is simple heart music, therefore powerful.” This synthesis is not one in which her blackness is sublimated within the context of a European idiom; instead she uses her wide-ranging reference points to create markedly expressive works that speak to her own narrative.
Price’s organ training comes through in her homophonic treatment of the orchestra as the violinist plays in a brilliant style that evokes bird song, and later, flowing water. The musical space this choice creates is evocative of a pastoral topic, but she evokes the Sturm und Drang topoi of Brahms and even Tchaikovsky when the tempo increases and the brass makes an entrance toward the end. All in all, Price’s prowess as a composer of expressive musical narrative is on full display in the second symphony. Kahng’s clear, technical, yet expressive playing serves to further the composer’s intent.
Violin Concerto No. 1 (track 2) was composed in 1939 and takes on a more traditional form. Once again, Kahng shocks and amazes as she expertly performs a strikingly chromatic florid cadenza in the tempo moderato. I reached out to Kahng to discern if she composed any portion of the cadenzas, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that every pitch was notated by the composer! Price includes challenging double stops that almost emulate the rustic color of fiddle or banjo. The cadenzas dovetail seamlessly into the pentatonic opening theme. The call and response topic appears as alternating statements between the string orchestra, solo violin, a flute singing a bird song, and even a brief brass choir. The piece ends with aural fireworks featuring impressively brisk arpeggios in the solo violin as the harmony ventures chromatically to distant keys. The final codetta is a con brio exclamation of the solo violin caller and the orchestral respondent in unison. This moment is reminiscent of a communal outburst during a black church service, but within the harmonic context of a Eurocentric musical construct.
The second movement, Andante, displays more of a spiritual topic, passing the pentatonic central themes from the first movement to the violin in its most vocal register—the middle. The orchestra, as Shadle notes, is more homophonic here, emulating a hymn and sensitively shaping this cantabile movement with gradual arcs of mounting emotional intent. The violin again has moments of cadenza, but considerably shorter than those at the beginning. A second motive in minor pentatonic appears in the violin, accompanied by sighs from the orchestra that emit the affect of the sorrow songs. The greater involvement of woodwinds coupled with the sinuous treatment of melodic contour emulates the stillness of a dusk in Arkansas—the composer’s birthplace. This spiritual lullaby comforts the listener, but the calm is interrupted by a tempestuous final movement.
The third movement is a tour-de-force that demands an impressive level of breadth from the orchestra. The first cadenza wanders so chromatically, that it’s difficult to discern a harmonic direction. However, the piece is held together by the fraught topical material meeting with a gallop-like pentatonic theme. If it were more syncopated, this section would sound like a juba dance or cakewalk. The more sonorous pentatonic theme—carrying with it the signification of the spiritual—exists in an oppositional relationship with a more chromatic counter-topic. The piece ends with a flourish, satisfying the listener with the confluence of the orchestra and the violin in the pentatonic theme.
My brief correspondence with violinist Er-Gene Kahng was overwhelmingly positive. In her response, Kahng displayed a keen awareness of the importance of the project in question, and an overarching respect for Price’s talent:
“It was, as you can imagine, a thrilling experience to perform these concertos! It undeniably stretched me as a violinist and artist; without being able to have an actual conversation about the concerto, I developed a closer relationship to the manuscript. Because of this pioneering aspect with regard to both the work being rediscovered and its fully orchestrated performance being its first to our knowledge, I found myself asking performative questions I never thought I’d ever find myself asking. There was a freshness that created a welcome jolt to my normal methods of interpreting works (and developed my skills as an interpretive artist), and the simple pleasure of discovering something new is always significant, valuable, and emotionally fulfilling for me. I feel more complete now having had the opportunity to interpret, share and perform Florence Price’s violin concertos.”
The significance of this recording cannot be over-emphasized. The rising popularity of Florence Price’s music, as evidenced by Micaela Baranello’s recent New York Times article, bodes well for a future classical music scene that dispenses with the historic myth of white male compositional supremacy (both Er-Gene Kahng and I were interviewed for this article). The Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas is embarking on a recording project of the Price symphonies, and the late Rae Linda Brown’s biography of Florence Price is awaiting release.
Young scholars such as myself are increasingly engaging with works by composers on the margins. I met a few scholars at last year’s American Musicological Society conference who will be exploring Price’s violin and organ works. My forthcoming dissertation will present readings of Price’s art songs through critical lenses including musical semiotics, black feminist inquiry, and Henry Louis Gates’s theory of signifyin(g). It is my hope that interest in Florence Price will lead to a movement that increases visibility of black classical musicians—particularly composers. It is a tragedy that the prolific black writer and composer Olly Wilson recently passed and I have never encountered his name in my schooling. It is a shame that in 2016 the Metropolitan Opera staged its first opera by a female composer (L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho) but has never staged an opera by an African American composer.
Until the margins are no more, we must continue to question the segregated concert music hall. Perhaps by decolonizing the lens through which we view the term “American music,” we can begin to divorce ourselves from the white canonical three “B” composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) and welcome in some new “B’s”—Regina Baiocchi, Margaret Bonds, Brittney Boykin and countless others.