Bassist, librettist, composer, and conductor Marcus Shelby has created with the jazz oratorio and double CD Harriet Tubman, a work that ought to have a place of honor in the intersecting worlds of jazz and American Black history. Performed exquisitely by the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, with vocals mostly by Faye Carol as Harriet Tubman, but also by drummer Kenny Washington, Jeannine Anderson, and Joseph Mace, Tubman's story is brought to life in music and words.
Basing the libretto on the book Harriet Tubman: Bound for the Promised Land (2004) by historian Kate Clifford Larson, Shelby tells the tale of Tubman's (1822-1913) suffering in slavery in Maryland, her resistance, defiance, and ultimate escape via the Underground Railroad. That, in itself, would be enough of a story of survival and liberation, but Tubman later made about a dozen subsequent dangerous trips back to Maryland to help friends and family also escape. Finally, she worked for the Union as a nurse, scout, and spy during the Civil War, and later worked for the rights of women and minorities.
Regardless of whether or not the individual listener has a direct connection to this history, Shelby's re-creation of Tubman's story is very moving and life affirming. The poetry of the libretto evokes the horror and sorrow of slavery, but also the strong family connections and deep faith that helped her, and others, survive the experience mentally and physically. Finally, the orchestra is top notch with very tight ensemble work and crackling soloists, working through sparkling arrangements.
Faye Carol is wonderful throughout, singing, scatting, and shouting her way through Tubman's character, starting with "I Will Not Stand Still," which picks up a theme initially presented in the opening "Prelude" and used as an idée fixe throughout the oratorio, and carrying through to the closing traditional spiritual "Go Down Moses."
In the composer's note, Shelby relates how he wanted to demonstrate the relationship between the sources of jazz and Tubman's story. He weaves "blues hollers, work songs, spirituals, [and] scat singing" into the vocal sections of the work, which creates a very sharp and telling contrast to the purely instrumental sections.
These instrumental sections swing and cook with abandon, bringing back the joy of jazz of the tradition, that, in retrospect, might be missing for some in the jazz of today. While Tubman's story could have been told in the abstract with modern jazz providing the emotions, Shelby's decision to create a historic work and use traditional jazz works very well.
Jazz is music of the liberation of the creative spirit and Harriet Tubman might very well bring both tears and smiles to any thoughtful listener.
Track Listing: CD1: Prelude: Ben & Rit; Ashanti Stomp; I Will Not Stand Still; Ben (Passin' Time); Life on the Chesapeake; Over Here Lord; North to Deleware. CD2: Stampede of Slaves; Freedom Trail; 54th Regiment (Will They Fight?); Black Suffrage Blues; Go Down Moses.
Personnel: Marcus Shelby: composer, librettist, bass, conductor; Faye Carol: vocals (Tubman); Kenny Washington: tenor vocals; Jeannine Anderson: soprano vocals; Joseph Mace: baritone; Gabe Eaton: alto saxophone; Marcus Stephens: alto saxophone, clarinet; Rob Barics: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Evan Francis: tenor saxophone, flute; Tom Griesser: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Danny Grewen: trombone; Scott Larson: trombone; Marc Bolin: bass trombone; Darren Johnston: trumpet; Dave Scott: trumpet; Joel Ryan: trumpet; Mike Olmos: trumpet; Adam Shulman: piano; Jeff Marrs: drums.