The Jazz Standard was recently sold-out while bassist Rufus Reid was holding court. This was a special evening for the arranger and composer. It was his New York premiere and the CD release of “Quiet Pride” (Motema Music), a moving suite of compositions inspired by the artistry of sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (April 15, 1915-April 2, 2012).
The tiny stage was crammed with a large ensemble of reeds, trumpets and trombones and the conductor Dennis Mackrel, along with the core group of Reid, pianist Steve Allee, guitarist Vic Juris, drummer Jonathan Blake and the natural instrumentation of Charenee Wade (vocals). Drummer Herlin Riley performed on the CD recording.
The album’s six tracks, including “Prelude to Recognition,” are titled after five sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett: “Recognition, 1970,” “Mother and Child, 1971, “Tapestry in the Sky” (inspired by the sculpture “Stargazer, 1997”), “Singing Head, 1980” and “Glory, 1981.”
“My goal was to have the music rendered so as to parallel my feelings and thoughts evoked by these beautiful Elizabeth Catlett sculptures,” stated Reid. “With this project, I hope to increase the awareness of the magnificent artistic contributions and spirit of America’s national treasure, Elizabeth Catlett.”
Catlett was one of America’s most significant sculptors, her contributions to the world of art being just as important as Picasso’s. Her sculptures are improvisational works of art that reflect life from an African-American perspective.
Reid’s music gives a voice to Catlett’s sculptures, allowing them to sing, swing and expand on Black culture as it exists today. “Mother and Child” features the original vocals of Wade and illustrates how the birth of a child is the most glorious, natural act on earth. The music is joyful, powerful and intense—a soulful sway that follows the rhythmic curves of the sculpture.
“Mother and Child,” done in limestone in 1939, won first prize in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago (1940).
The voice of Wade is at the heart of “Singing Head,” as the ensemble intuitively swings with heavy drum intensity, vamping on tenor saxophone improvisation, with increased movement from the reed and trumpet sections. Each person usually has a different perspective of the artwork they are viewing and music they are listening to. The same can be said for these sculptures. While Reid has come up with his own musical connection, others may see another color or another definition of Catlett’s work. But for sure, the music and artistry are from the life experiences of both artists whose work represents the trials and tribulations of Blacks in America.
Catlett, a graduate of Howard University, was a committed activist during the era of segregation and the McCarthy years. She was closely watched by the United States Embassy. She was later considered an “ undesirable alien” by the State Department and eventually gave up her American citizenship. In 1947, she married Mexican artist Francisco Mora and became a Mexican citizen.
“Glory” pushes rapid harmonies and hard-hitting chords that could reflect Catlett’s days as an activist in America. Trumpet flurries and disjointed piano chords engage in moving conversation as the vocals of Wade rise and calm the flurry as an emotional saxophone moves in on “Tapestry in the Sky.”
The artistic world of Catlett connects with the music of Reid, offering an energizing moment on “Quiet Pride.” “I have always wanted my art to service my people, to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential,” Catlett told artist and art historian Samella S. Lewis.
The genres of gospel come together on the jazz road as Tyrone Birkett Emancipation come together at Mist (46 W. 116th St.) on March 25 at 7 p.m. Saxophonist Tyrone Birkett features vocalist Paula Ralph-Birkett, pianist Greg Royals, electric bassist Reggie Young and drummer Jason Patterson. Together, they will be performing music from their new CD, “Postmodern Spirituals: The Promised Land.”
For more information, call 212-828-6478. Admission is $10 at the door.
The Harlem Divas (Sweet Georgia Brown, Lady Cantrese and Annette St. John) will make their way downtown to perform at the noted Iridium (1650 Broadway at 50th Street) on March 25 for two shows at 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. These divas have a reputation for blazing stages wherever they perform. This larger venue should only make for soaring performances. For more information, call 212-582-2121.
Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre’s (NFT) 44th anniversary and gala honoring Voza Rivers was a memorable event for the annals of Black culture. Running a Black theater for 44 years is no easy task, but when you pull off the covers, one realizes that since the 1920s, Black theater has been the backbone and training ground fueling the Great White Way, television and films over the years.
Aspiring playwrights from the NFT who earned mainstream status include Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Joseph Lazardi, Ntozake Shange and Laurence Holder. Film and television stars from the ranks of NFT include Jackée Harry, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Taurean Blacque, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Garrett Morris, Robert Downey Jr., Debbi Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ruby Dee and Leslie Uggams.
King founded the NFT in 1970, which grew out of a theater program at Mobilization for Youth—one of the few federally funded programs during the 1960s that actually worked. The NFT brought Black theater to the Lower East Side. Eventually, the entire city of New York and tourists were in the audience.
As the producing director of NFT, King has presented over 200 productions in its 44-year history. Some of the plays have included “The Matador of 1st and 1st” by composer-saxophonist Oliver Lake and directed by Oz Scott; “Chain/Late Bus to Mecca” by Pearl Cleage and directed by Imani; and “Whose Family Valves” by Richard Abrons and directed by Philip Rose.
While King covered the Lower East Side, his theater brother Rivers was covering the West Side of Harlem at the New Heritage Theater under the tutelage of Roger Furman, its founder and a playwright and director. Rivers is a persevering cultural producer whose productions extend from Harlem to Japan and South Africa. He brought two plays to Harlem from South Africa that included “Woza Albert!,” “Asinamali!,” and “Sarafina!”—the latter two going on to Broadway.
Those celebrating the NFT and Rivers included vocalists Chuck Jackson and Valerie Simpson, actors Debbi Morgan, Danny Glover and Robert Townsend, Impact Repertory Theatre and South African
vocalist Tsidii Le Loka.
Throughout the gala, Rivers maintained his noted cool persona. He is a low-key mentor for many young people, particularly the youngsters of the Impact Repertory Theatre, of which he is a co-founder and executive producer. He is also the executive producer of Harlem Week and the Harlem Jazz and Music Festival, and chairman of the Harlem Arts Alliance, to name a few of his affiliations.
Rivers is a quiet fire maintaining the flame of Black culture in America.