McGill/McHale Trio – Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet & Piano

McGill McHale trio
Title: Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet & Piano

Artist: McGill/McHale Trio

Label: Cedille / dist. Naxos

Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Release date: August 11, 2017


Chicagoans who followed the classical music scene in the 1990s were likely first introduced to the amazingly talented McGill brothers when they performed with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, they began studying classical music at an early age, and by their high school years were receiving national attention.

Now, as musicians who hold principal positions in major orchestras, the brothers have not only reached the pinnacle of their chosen professions, but are among the few African Americans to do so. Demarre McGill recently returned to the Seattle Symphony as principal flute, and younger brother Anthony McGill is principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. Together with Irish pianist Michael McHale, they formed the McGill/McHale Trio in 2014. Portraits is the trio’s debut recording, released on the prominent Chicago-based Cedille label.

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For this project, the McGill/McHale Trio selected works by living composers; three of those works are recorded for the first time on Portraits. The album takes its title from the longest work on the disc (26:03), Portraits of Langston by Kentucky native Valerie Coleman, flutist/composer of the Chicago-based quintet Imani Winds. Composed in 2007, her six movement suite is based on selected poems by Langston Hughes, which are recited before their corresponding movements by Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali. Hughes’ love of jazz is conveyed in Coleman’s musical palette, along with other styles reflective of the Harlem Renaissance era.

The suite begins with the short, melodic “Prelude: Helen Keller,” then delves into the polyrhythmic “Danse Africaine.” After an extended clarinet solo, the movement becomes increasingly frenetic, offering an opportunity for each instrument to shine. The poem “Le Grand Duc Mambo,” describing an altercation between the dancers and patrons of a Parisian cabaret, is masterfully mimicked by flute and clarinet as they enter into a brief and occasionally strident squabble.  “In Time of Silver Rain” speaks of a period “when spring and life are new.” Here Coleman eschews jazz, writing instead a short, atmospheric piece with hints of Debussy in the piano intro and undulating winds, which also carries over into the flute solo.

Returning once again to Hughes’ brief sojourn in Paris in the 1920s, “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret” is “that tune that laughs and cries at the same time.” As the programmatic movement progresses, jazz inflections intensify, with the climax brilliantly pairing stride piano against clarinet riffs. Though one might expect “Harlem’s Summer Night” to be more boisterous, Coleman instead concludes the suite in a more tranquil manner, with blue notes only occasionally jarring the calm of the evening.

French composer Guillaume Connesson reveals his pop music influences in Techno-Parade (2002). This virtuosic work features “a continuous pulsation from start to finish,” emulating the repetitive nature of the Kraftwerk-influenced electronic dance music that emerged from Detroit’s African American clubs in the 1980s and became hugely popular in Europe.  The ensemble performs brilliantly, maintaining precision throughout the complex counterpoint and rhythms, and increasing the intensity right up to the explosive finish.

Other works featured on the recording include an orchestrated version of Chris Rogerson’s A Fish Will Rise (2014/2016), based on Norman Maclean’s best-selling book A River Runs Through It;  Paul Schoenfield’s Sonatina for Flute, Clarinet and Piano; Philip Hammond’s The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil; and McHale’s arrangements of both Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and the Irish traditional song The Lark in the Clear Air.

Portraits showcases the formidable talents of Demarre and Anthony McGill, who have found their match in the outstanding pianist Michael McHale. Performing with emotional intensity, extraordinary precision, and superb blending of timbres, the McGill/McHale Trio presents a dazzling debut album that’s equally significant for its three world premiere recordings of contemporary works. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Langston Hughes, Laura Karpman – Ask Your Mama

Langston Hughes_Ask Your Mama._AA160_

Title: Ask Your Mama

Artists: Langston Hughes (text), Laura Karpman (music)

Label: Avie

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: July 10, 2015


Premiered in 2009 at Carnegie Hall as part of Jessye Norman’s Honor! Festival celebrating the legacy of African American musicians, Laura Karpman’s masterful Ask Your Mama is finally available on CD.

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Karpman’s composition is an original musical setting of Langston Hughes’ epic poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Pieces for Jazz, written in 1960 while he was attending the Newport Jazz Festival and published as a book of poems in 1961. One of the notable features of the book is Hughes’ marginalia describing the musical soundtrack running through his head, which he describes in the “Dedication” (track 1):

“This poem was written in segments beginning at Newport, at the Newport Jazz Festival in fact, two summers ago. And I suppose that is why, as I wrote most of it, I could hear jazz music behind it. And so when I gave the first reading of some segments of this poem, they were read to jazz. However, the poem may be read with or without music, of course. But for the benefit of those who might like to hear the music that I heard in my mind as I wrote ‘Ask Your Mama,’ along the margin of the book there are little musical notations. And the leitmotif of the poem, the Hesitation Blues, the old-traditional blues, and the little break that is used between some of the verses, ‘Shave And A Haircut, Fifteen Cents,’ those are reproduced musically at the front of the book. And then in the back of the book, as if it were a record, I have a series of liner notes for the unhep, that is, for those who may not quite understand what the poem is about.”

Crossing many genres, Hughes’ musical references range from cool jazz and post bop to German lieder, patriotic songs, spirituals, blues and African drumming. Karpman, a notable Hollywood composer, weaves all of these strands together into a compelling new work. Also woven into the mix are many samples drawn from earlier recordings—most notably segments of Hughes’ reading of the poem (presumably from the 1970 Buddah release)—as well as fragments of Louis Armstrong, Leontyne Price, Pigmeat Markham, Cab Calloway and perhaps others (regrettably the liner notes don’t cite specific recordings). This sampling lends a distinctive hip hop influence, juxtaposed with a classical foundation provided by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by George Manahan. Other performers include classical singers Janai Brugger, Angela Brown, and Tesia Kwarteng; jazz vocalists Nnenna Freelon, Monét Owens, Erin McGlover, and Taura Stinson; in addition to Black Thought, The Roots, Medusa, and other instrumentalists.

The tracks follow the original order of the 12 sections of the poem: 1. Dedication; 2. Cultural Exchange; 3. Ride, Red, Ride; 4. Shades of Pigmeat; 5. Ode to Dinah; 6. Blues in Stereo; 7. Horn of Plenty; 8. Gospel Cha-Cha; 9. Is It True?; 10. Ask Your Mama; 11. Bird in Orbit; 12. Jazztet Muted – Show fare, please.

Karpman’s musical setting breathes new life into Langston Hughes’ text, together referencing the entirety of the African American experience through a diverse range of musical genres and vernacular traditions such as children’s rhymes and signifying.

Note: Those interested in a different interpretation of the work might be interested in Dr. Ron McCurdy’s The Langston Hughes Project, which claims to follow Hughes’ own plans for a multimedia project, and the related CD.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss