The New Black Music Repertory Ensemble:
2001-2002 Season Opening
reviewed by Rahsaan Clark Morris
The New Black Music Repertory Ensemble opened its 2001-02 season this past Wednesday, October 10, at the South Shore Cultural Center’s Paul Robeson Theatre with a concert entitled “The Black Composer and the String Quartet.” This concert included latter-day compositions ranging from an adaptation of a famous Jazz Messengers’ piece to the work of contemporary composers Dorothy Rudd Moore, Alvin Singleton, and Frederick Tillis, performed by the lead players of the Repertory Ensemble’s string orchestra: concertmaster Ashley Horne, Rachel Handlin (violin), Reneé Baker (viola), and lead cellist Ed Moore.
Artistic Director Coleridge Taylor Perkinson introduced each piece with either an anecdote or an actual note from the composer on his or her work. Opening the concert was a piece made famous by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1958, “Blues March,” written by then-saxophonist Benny Golson, recently adapted by Golson himself for New York’s Uptown String Quartet. With the other three players finger-poppin’ the beat, cellist Ed Moore plucked out the familiar melody as if he were playing contra-bass. Then, going into an evident improv section, violinist Horne played the lead part with the ensemble backing Horne with pizzicato and some rousing foot-stompin’.
The Quartet then slowed down the proceedings in a wonderful way with their interpretation of Dorothy Rudd Moore’s 1968 composition "Modes For String Quartet." This piece, first performed at New York’s Society for Black Composers, opened with the somber first mode taken at a moderate tempo, the formal structure giving way to the lightness of the second mode “aire,” so designated by Moore in her notes accompanying the piece. The final segment, a “rhythmic accented dance,” performed at allegro tempo, joyously rounded out the Modes.
After that came Brooklyn-born Alvin Singleton’s "String Quartet #1," composed a year earlier than the Rudd Moore piece. The multi-faceted single-movement piece moved from mood to mood, expressing all the while the different influences of Singleton’s music which, as he described them, run the gamut in interest from the music of “such artists as Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and Wadada Leo Smith” to “European composers such as Luciano Berio, Giuseppe Verdi, and Ludwig van Beethoven.” As quoted in the International Dictionary of Black Composers, the critic Derrick Henry of The Atlanta Constitution wrote of this work: “Singleton employs the traditional forms of passacaglia and fugue within a harmonic language reminiscent of [Hungarian composer Bela] Bartok, creating [a] strongly crafted music of considerable expressive power.”
Following the intermission, the audience was immersed in the gospel-to-string-quartet experiments of Frederick Tillis. Entitled "Spiritual Fantasy No. 12 for String Quartet" and composed in 1988, the piece used four spirituals as the basis for the four movements. Tillis had noted that the composition “pays tribute to the pathos and triumph of a people over worldly obstacles.” The first movement of the work was based on the tune “Nobody Knows The Trouble I See”, a gospel tune that is different from the more commonly known “...... I’ve Seen”, but still with a similar sounding theme.
“Wade In The Water” was the basis of the second movement and it proved to be the liveliest with pizzicato playing serving as percussion, giving the tune an excitement imbued with that fervor found only in Gospel music. A mood of reflection was established with the third movement based on the tune “The Crucifixion," the interwoven sonorities of the stringed instruments creating a vision of a somber landscape. Once again, pizzicato playing opened the fourth and final movement of the work, a lean and angular piece based on the spiritual “I’m A- Rollin."
Finishing off the evening was a contemporary work by none other than saxophonist Jimmy Heath of the Heath Brothers fame, a tune with a bluesy motif entitled “Melodic Strains” composed in 1991. I found it interesting that a certain musical format usually associated with classical music such as the string quartet could find expression in playing music adapted from jazz and gospel styles, but then the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble has taken as its mission the exploration of the differences and commonalties of the music of the African Diaspora in all its myriad forms. As if to hit the point home, the quartet performed for an encore a shortened version of Golson’s “Blues March” for people to remember them by.
Ironically, as we were exiting the Cultural Center, Malachi Thompson’s Freebop Band, which was performing in another part of the building in conjunction with another event, was playing a bluesy “I Remember Clifford” by, once again, Benny Golson, proving, as if it needed to be proven, Golson’s eclecticism and improving our own. I said to myself, “It's all good."
We’ll see what Artistic Director Coleridge Taylor Perkinson comes up with for the Repertory Ensemble's next concert which will be on November 20, an exploration of “The Black Composer and the Solo Voice: The Poetry of Langston Hughes,” featuring baritone Andrew Schultze and tenor Barrington Coleman. All concerts in the series are held at the South Shore Cultural Center, under the direction of Ife McWhorter and admission is free.
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