Saturday, January 1, 2011

Struggles and Confirmation

Soul of the Movement - Marcus Shelby Orchestra (Porto Franco Records) -Bassist/composer Shelby is nothing if not an ambitious person.  He first came to critical notice in the early 1990s as the leader of Black Note, a quintet based on the West Coast that mined the fertile grounds of jazz from the 1960s.  Unlike many young musicians, he stayed in California (in the Bay Area) creating music for dance, film and theatrical productions, fronting a trio and, since early 2000, writing for a large ensemble.   

The Marcus Shelby Orchestra is the vehicle for his most impressive and expansive work.  The MSO's initial release was "The Lights Suite" , a combination of music written as a score for a play along with original pieces and jazz "standards.  2004 saw "Port Chicago", a long instrumental work based on the true story of the northern California naval base where a devastating explosion in July 1944 killed more than 320 men, predominantly African American sailors, and injured 400 others. That fine work was followed in 2007 by "Harriet Tubman" , the 19th Century Civil Rights activist who who rose out of humble beginnings, escaped slavery and dedicated her life to challenging the grave injustices in her day. It also was first time Shelby created a libretto for vocalists and, to my ears, was a great success.

The music he composes for his Big Band contains elements of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thad Jones, Count Basie and more.  Much of it "swings" in the way the Lincoln Center Orchestra's productions do.  He creates wonderful grooves for the numerous soloists but rarely if ever lets solos dominate the work.  

Now comes "Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."   The CD, to be released the week of Dr. King's 82 Birthday celebration, blends traditional gospel melodies with songs of the late 50's and 1960s and Shelby originals.  The 16-piece orchestra (plus 3 guests) is once again joined by 3 distinct vocalists and the program is a stunning musical adventure.  Opening with the traditional "There is a Balm in Gilead", the project serves a stunning reminder of how important music was/is to African Americans.  Their frustrations, fears, desires, wants and needs were all wrapped up in the lyrics and music. "...Balm..." features the lovely soprano of Jeannine Anderson in the lead with Faye Carol and Kenny Washington as harmonic support. That is followed by another traditional "Amen" which most people know from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions' version from the 1963 movie, "Lilies of the Field." Shelby does a masterful job creating a modern backdrop for the gospel melody, lovely angular harmonies and giving tenor saxophonists Sheldon Brown and Evan Francis the solo spotlight.  Washington and Carol contribute a soaring scat duet that leads back to the chorus.  

One of the better pieces is "Black Cab (Montgomery)" that tells the story of the cab drivers and car pools that drive people to work, church and school during the 13 month long bus boycott in the Alabama city. Not only do most listeners learn something from the lyrics but the "groove" is infectious.  There is also a rousing version of Mingus's "Fables of Faubus", the bassist's sarcastic tribute to the Arkansas Governor who defied the US Supreme Court's 1957 decision to desegregate Little Rock High School, ordering troops to keep African American students out.  The only thing missing is the lyrics (read them here), a searing indictment of not only the Governor but also President Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller.  

Honestly, there is not a weak track on this disk.  The all-instrumental "Birmingham: Project C" is a stirring multi-sectioned piece with stirring solos and great underpinning from bassist Shelby, pianist Adam Schulman and drummer Jeff Marrs. Curtis Mayfield's "We're a Winner" gets one's feet tapping, thanks to the funky rhythm, Matt Clark's gospel-drenched Hammond B-3 work, and "righteous" tenor saxophone from Howard Wiley.  Wiley also joins Washington, Carol, and pianist Sista Kee for the closing track, a deeply felt and down-home version of Thomas Dorsey's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

It's no accident that the first word in the album's title is "Soul" - chances are good you won't hear a more soulful release in 2011. But, there is also a number of important messages here, all delivered without the composer or the participants  beating the listener over the head.  The "beats" move you and the lyrics energize you.  And, it is important to listen right now - 2 years into the Obama Presidency and the verbal attacks on him and his wife are filled with vitriol, fueled (mostly) by ignorance and antiquated beliefs.  For all the messages and the photos that adorn the CD package that illuminate the struggle, there is so much joy in this music.  Joy, such a welcome element to this and every day.
For more information, go to

Know Thyself - Noah Baerman (Lemel Music) - Connecticut-based composer, bandleader, educator and pianist Noah Baerman received a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation/ Chamber Music America in 2008 and this 65 minute-plus suite is the result.  It's a brave step for Baerman on a number of levels. First of all, the piece is continuous - one must start at the very beginning and listen through to the very end, something that many CD listeners do not have the attention for these days (works well in concert, though.)  Though the work is multi-sectioned, it is only available as one long track (even on iTunes.)

Secondly, Baerman is best know for his Trio recordings, although his impressive 2005 tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., titled "Soul Force", featured a large ensemble on half the tracks. This work is scored for a septet of 2 reeds, vibraphone, guitar, piano, bass and drums.  All the participants are known to the composer, from his regular rhythm section of Henry Lugo (bass) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums, marimba) to childhood friends Wayne Escoffery (tenor and soprano saxophones) and Amanda Monaco (guitar) to newer friends Erica von Kleist (alto saxophone and flute) and Chris Dingman (vibraphone.)
One of the more interesting twists of the program is that it opens with a 3-minute tenor saxophone solo from Escoffery and not a piano intro. In fact, while Baerman takes several solos over the course of the work, they are fairly short.  At the premiere of the piece, his ultimate solo brought down the house.  It's quite exciting here, setting the tone for Escoffery's fiery spotlight (over McCoy Tyner-like chords and Sperrazza's thunderous percussion.)

There are 13 distinct sections to "Know Thyself", each with a title (listed on the inside of the CD package), some of which reflect the composer's myriad influences (from pianists James Williams and Phineas Newborn Jr. to Stevie Wonder and 70's soul music), while others sound unique to Baerman and come from his personal musical experimentation.  Much of the music rides on the fine rhythm work of Lugo and Sperrazza, both of whom understand how Baerman's musical mind works.  The ensemble sections are tight, the blend of guitar and vibes (as both "colors" and solo voices) fills out the sounds in a pleasing manner and there are a number of surprises along the way, from the leader's fine melodica work to Monaco's short acoustic guitar section to  von Kleist's sweet flute and alto voicings.

One could look at a project such as this and say it is a summation of the artist's career up until 2009 and the music hints at new directions.  That's thinking too much - the commission gave the composer the opportunity and resources to create a "large" work and, if you look at the composition, it's made to be played live in a concert hall.  There's plenty of great jazz on record but the best moments (for me) are in concert halls, performance spaces and night clubs.  "Know Thyself" was a major challenge for Noah Baerman and he succeeded in grand fashion.  But the true success will come when a work this good (and the Marcus Shelby work above) gets played in Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and other great venues around the country and people get to breathe its refreshing air.

For more information and a chance to hear the music, go to

1 comment:

  1. Hola, New Years greetings from Espana. I wanted to thank you for your informative blog and the hard work you must put in. I don't leave as many comments as I should, buzzing around blog land and all over the web, but I want to take this opportunity to thank you.

    I also wanted to inform you that I put to your blog on my blog watch 'Information Inspiration'. It's really a big personal blog roll, but I'm sure some music fans will find it useful;

    Today I launched a new blog 'Rhythm And Groove' which you may want to check out when you have the time;

    Una mas, muchas gracias para todo... and wishing you a prosperous 2011.