Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.

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Black Classical Part Four


As promised in a previous blog I am here continuing a little personal survey of recordings of music by black classical composers in honor of Black History Month. I suppose it is worth adding that I pursue these recordings because they present interesting and exciting repertoire that has not gotten the circulation it deserves. Sadly this is most likely the result of the failure of producers, performers audiences and investors to look at the value of the art itself, looking instead through the lens of racial prejudice. I hope that readers of these blogs will avail themselves of this music, these performers, these recordings and maybe come to realize that those old prejudices serve only to limit one’s world view and prevent a rewarding artistic experience. Art, like people, must come to be valued by its own merits, not limited on the basis of skin color. MLK definitely phrased that more elegantly.

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And further proof of such valuable art can be found in a series of recordings on the Chicago-based label Cedille. In fact their website cedillerecords.org contains a link to the six albums of music by black composers they have thus far issued.

Building on the work he had begun with the Black Composers series for Columbia in the 1970s conductor Paul Freeman released three CDs in the Cedille series called ‘African Heritage Symphonic Series’. With the orchestra he founded Freeman presents music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, Hale Smith, David Abel’s, David Baker, William Banfield and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Freeman released a CD dedicated exclusively to the music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as well.

Violinist Rachel Barton-Pine released a disc of violin concertos by 18th and19th century black composers on Cedille and there is a disc of choral music which includes music by black composers.

Let’s turn now to the Albany www.albanyrecords.com label where you can find more of the artistry of Paul Freeman in 18 albums where he presents neglected music of the 20th century by a wide variety of composers black and white. Most of it is by American composers and much of that in styles related to the mid-century styles of the likes of William Schuman, Aaron Copland and their students. While these discs include music by many of the previously mentioned black composers there are no duplications of works or performances. I have heard but a few of these discs but what I have heard is enough to convince me to plan to purchase the others. Freeman, in addition to bringing the music of black composers to the listening audience has done a fine job of documenting many whose work has been little heard until now.

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Another composer who fits more or less into the context of the conventions of the western concert traditions whose work has informed my listening is that of Anthony Davis (1951- ). While he has played with musicians from more experimental traditions the influence of the western concert traditions is more easily heard.

His study of jazz as well as western classical and eastern gamelan are all evident in his work (though not necessarily all at the same time). The New York City Opera produced his, ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X’ in 1986 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago produced ‘Amistad’ in 1997. He has written concertos for piano and for violin as well as music for orchestra and smaller ensembles. At the time of this writing he is professor of music at the University of California San Diego.

So far the music we have discussed has been of the sort more commonly heard in concert halls these days. Freeman’s efforts have seemingly jump-started the recording industry to pay some attention to the music of black and other neglected composers. Certainly there is much more gold to be mined there. But we have yet to address the contemporary scene, the new and creative artists who are bringing innovative ideas and sounds and advancing the musical arts for subsequent generations. Following on the innovations of great jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (among many) there was increasing focus on techniques being used by contemporary “classical” composers

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To these ends there is no better place to start than with the AACM, the American Association of Creative Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1965 this collective has strived to bring various elements of black culture in an incredibly eclectic and experimental milieu which has had and continues to have an influence on music, musicians and audiences. This collective was finally given a proper overview in George Lewis’ book, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’. Lewis, a trombonist, composer and currently professor of music at Columbia University in New York was a member of the AACM.

The AACM was not the only such collective but it was one of the most visible, at least to me. And it continues to develop and evolve bringing the complex and innovative musical ideas evolving from the black roots of jazz to a level of recognition and respect formerly accorded pretty much exclusively to European academic models. The AACM, dubbed “Great Black Music” also strives to retain the identity of black music by black peoples of the world looking to non-western models that predate European colonialism marrying them to the best of European models as absorbed by the diaspora. Many of their members now hold academic positions including Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell.

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Perhaps the best known ensemble to come out of the AACM is the flexibly-membered Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their album ‘Third Decade’ released in 1984 is representative of their work and also marks a sort of end to one creative era for this flexibly-membered group. Most listeners will hear this as progressive jazz and it certainly has those elements. But repeated listenings reveal many layers to this work. And this is but one of a large catalog of albums as diverse as they are numerous (about 50 albums and still counting). More on their work at their website www.artensembleofchicago.com.

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Another prominent figure that was a member of AACM is Anthony Braxton, saxophonist, composer, chess master who dislikes the term ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. He is currently professor of music at Wesleyan University. And indeed his music which ranges from solo saxophone work to small ensemble and orchestral music and opera are difficult to classify. His experimentalism is related to but not derivative of the work of John Cage. It would be impossible to represent his musical output in a single album but the solo saxophone ‘For Alto’ (1968) and ‘Creative Orchestra Music’ (1976) are good places to start in his discography of well over 100 albums. His website tricentricfoundatio.org offers many of his recordings for sale and even offers free downloads of bootleg recordings.

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For the sake of brevity I will discuss only one more artist in this blog entry, Julius Eastman (1940-1990). He was a composer, vocalist, pianist and dancer. As a vocalist he sang and recorded the music of Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Morton Feldman, Arthur Russell and Peter Maxwell-Davies. He was very much a part of the avant garde downtown scene in New York of the 1970s.

At the time of his sad death from a heart attack at the age of 49 there were but a few recordings of his work (collected in a nice 3 CD set on the New World label). And many of his scores were lost when he was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment. The composer Mary Jane Leach is attempting to collect and preserve his legacy and has made many of his extant scores on her website http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm.

Without a doubt there are many more black classical and avant-garde artists I have yet to discover. I welcome suggestions and I hope that the preceding ideas will stimulate and encourage others to explore these artists and works.

Black Classical Part Three


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For my third installment I have chosen to highlight that series of recordings by conductor Paul Freeman of music by black composers which I mentioned in a previous blog.

In 1974 Columbia Records issued 9 LPs (originally it was to be 12) over the next few years in a series called, ‘Music by Black Composers’. The music was chosen largely by Paul Freeman who also wrote the liner notes and conducted the performances. He was assisted by musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma who contributed his knowledge of pre 20th century black music and also edited some of the pieces for performance.

This set of records was featured by my local radio station (WFMT in Chicago) at the time of its release and opened my listening mind to to this cornucopia of fascinating classical concert music by black composers. The series was so titled in part because it included music from many countries and also because it was released before the term ‘African American’ became Le mot juste (but that is another story).

The series was apparently recorded and released 1974-78 and re-released in 1986 as a set under the Columbia Special Products label. Historically it was an important set of releases much like the series curated by David Behrman called ‘Music of Our Time’ which featured some truly cutting edge music by composers writing in the sixties and seventies. To be sure the black composer series was not cutting edge modernism like that series but gains its cutting edge from collecting in one set music from the 18th to the mid-20th century by a set of composers who, other than having been trained in the discipline of music performance and composition, held in common only a skin color darker than ‘white’.

Billboard announced the plan to issue these records in 1973 saying that they were the fruit of a collaboration between the Irwin-Sweeney Miller Foundation of Columbus, Indiana and, with the encouragement of Dominique-Rene de Lerma, the school of music at Indiana University in Bloomington. Citing “campus politics” professor de Lerma reported that Indiana had lost interest so he phoned Paul Freeman (conductor with the Detroit Symphony at the time) and advised him to contact the ‘Afro-American Music Opportunities Association’ whose support then helped launch this series. The original plan was to release four albums per year for at least three years but a great beginning soon slowed and the 9th album (pictured above) was the final release in the series.

Coming twenty some years after the voting rights act of 1965 it retained the some cachet of the civil rights movement and likely was produced at that time in the hopes that this might help sell the albums to consumers. I don’t know who ultimately bought these albums or what their total sales were but I know that some visionary producers at WFMT piqued my interest and that I bought many of these records and listened with interest when they were scheduled to play (I religiously perused the monthly program guide).

The original releases went out of print in a few years. There was a CD set (currently out of print) compiled by the Columbia University (Chicago) Center for Research in Black Music funded by the Ford Foundation that released a selection of the Detroit Symphony performances (now a pricey collector’s item) from that set as well as a reissue of the complete set on vinyl records with the original cover art and program notes which remains, I am happy to report, available by mail from the College Music Society in Missoula, Montana www.music.org.

The contents are:
Columbia M-32781 (1973); volume 1
Saint-Georges: Symphony concertante, op. 13 (ed. by Barry S. Brook; Miriam Fried, Jaime Laredo, violins; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Symphony no. 1 (ed. by D. de Lerma; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Scena from Ernestine (ed. by D. de Lerma; Faye Robinson, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: String quartet no. 1 (ed. by D. de Lerma; Julliard Quartet)

Columbia M-32782 (1973); volume 2
William Grant Still: Afro-American symphony.
—-: 2 arias from Highway 1, U.S.A. (London Symphony Orchestra; William Brown, tenor)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Danse nègre.
—–: “Onaway, awake, beloved” from Hiawatha’s wedding feast (William Brown, tenor; London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-32783 (1974); volume 3
Ulysses Kay: Markings (London Symphony Orchestra)
George Walker: Trombone concerto (Denis Wick, trombone; London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-32784 (1974); volume 4
Roque Cordero: Violin concerto (Sanford Allen, violin; Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Eight miniatures (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-33421 (1975); volume 5
José Maurício Nunes-Garcia: Requiem Mass, M. 185 (ed. by D. de Lerma; Doralene Davis, soprano; Betty Allen, mezzo-soprano; William Brown, tenor; Matti Tuloisela, bass-baritone; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Morgan State University Choir [Nathan Carter, director])

Columbia M-33432 (1975); volume 6
José White: Violin concerto (ed. by Paul Glass and Kermit Moore; Aaron Rosand, violin; London Symphony Orchestra)
David Baker: Cello sonata (Janós Starker, cello; Alain Planès, piano)

Columbia M-33433 (1975); volume 7
William Grant Still: Sahdji (London Symphony Orchestra; Morgan State University Choir [Nathan Carter, director])
Fela Sowande: African suite (3 excerpts; London Symphony Orchestra)
George Walker: Lyric for strings (London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-33434 (1975); volume 8
Olly Wilson: Akwan (Richard Bunger, piano; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Richard Bunger, piano)
Thomas Jefferson Anderson: Squares (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)
Talib Rasul Hakim: Visions of Ishwara (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-34556 (1978); volume 9
George Walker: Piano concerto (Natalie Hinderas, piano; Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Hale Smith: Ritual and incantations (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Adolphus Hailstork: Celebration! (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Later Freeman began a series on Chicago-based Cedille records that released three further volumes of black composers’ music with his wonderful Chicago Sinfonietta as well as several CDs dedicated entirely to single black composers (more about those and more in another post).

Perhaps an innovative label such as Naxos might some day bring these Columbia recordings back into circulation in their entirety in the CD format. Meanwhile I am pretty happy with my LPs with their copious notes and full-sized beautiful graphics. If you haven’t heard this set I would encourage you to avail yourself of some of this beautiful music.

Black Classical Part One


Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

In honor of Black History Month I want to bring attention in this blog to black music that is not a part of popular culture. I want to highlight some of the black classical composers whose work I find most satisfying and accomplished.

I will begin with the music of Adophus Hailstork. I had been aware of some of this man’s work for some years but it was when I purchased the Naxos recording of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies that I came to appreciate the power of his work.

Hailstork was born in 1941. He studied piano, organ, voice and violin. He is another of a long line of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. As one would expect, some of his music is concerned with significant events of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s. ‘American Guernica’ of 1983 is his response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four little girls. Similarly his 1979 composition, ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’ is an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

I purchased the Naxos disc to become more familiar with this man’s music. The first work on the disc is the 3rd Symphony of the late 1990s struck me as a highly entertaining and accomplished work that deserves a place in the symphonic repertoire. It is a joyous and inventive work which, to my ears, echoed the likes of orchestral masters such as William Schuman and Vincent Persichetti as well a hint of minimalist repetitive structures. It is a lavish neo-romantic work with a depth and complexity that demands several hearings but one which has an immediate appeal. The somber 2nd Symphony is imbued with the composer’s reactions to having visited the historical slave market areas of West Africa which, I imagine, must be not unlike visiting the death camps of the former Nazi Germany.

As time and finances permit I intend to pursue more of this American composer’s works. There is precious little reference material to be found on the Internet regarding this prolific masterful composer (as is the case with all the black classical composers i have so far encountered) though, thankfully, there are more recordings.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Africlassical.com and its related blog provide some information on about 50 composers and musicians. The now retired daring black conductor Paul Freeman recorded a significant series of music by black composers issued on 9 LPs for Columbia records in the 1970s. He recorded another 3CDs of music by black composers on Chicago-based Cedille records. He founded the Chicago Sinfonietta (billed as the world’s most diverse orchestra) and was its principal conductor for 24 years and continues in its mission of diversity presenting unusual concert repertoire.

More about some of the composers on those Columbia LPs and Cedille CDs as well as others to come in future blogs during this month.