The Jim Ridl Jazz Quartet
Performing Dave Brubeck's "Hold Fast to Dreams"
Set to the poems of Langston Hughes
Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Sometimes we need to be reminded who we are and what's important in life. The essentials are easily forgotten in the rush of daily activities. When a musical event serves as such a reminder, it's noteworthy indeed. That's what this stellar performance of Dave Brubeck's choral composition, "Hold Fast to Dreams" turned out to be.
Fundamentally, the concert reminded us that music and life are really about the springs of joy within the hardships of everyday life, the importance of believing in and standing up for something, and the necessity to renew the fight for freedom and equality in each generation. I believe these messages are inherent in jazz, the remarkable contribution of the African American community to world culture, as well as in the poetry of Langston Hughes, whose words formed the basis of this beautiful choral piece by Brubeck.
Sadly, this wonderful choral work has not had much exposure. The idea for a Brubeck piece featuring a children's choir was originally conceived by Sue Ellen Page, Founding Director of the Trenton Children's Chorus and Director of Choirs for Children and Youth at the Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton. Following correspondence between Page and Brubeck during which she suggested the use of Langston Hughes' poetry, the piece was conjointly commissioned by the two choir groups. It was composed by Brubeck in 1997 and its premier performance was at the Richardson Auditorium of Princeton University featuring Brubeck as pianist. Jim Ridl and his quartet ably provided the jazz improvisations for this latest performance. So far as I know, the piece has rarely been performed elsewhere and has not been released in a commercial recording, although the tune "Hold Fast to Dreams" is on Brubeck's album, "The Crossing." A somewhat modified choral score is available through Warner Brothers. The full choral composition is an artful and moving work that will appeal to both children and adults, jazz and classical music fans. It has a universality and spirit that should earn it a place in popular culture. To bring it to the public's attention, someone needs to perform it in a large urban concert hall venue or on public television, and/or release it on CD.
The piece is composed for an adult choir, a children's chorus, piano, and - optionally- a jazz quartet which comes in to improvise at several key points along the way. After hearing it with the Jim Ridl Quartet, I am now spoiled and would find it hard to listen to without a jazz group. The title poem of the work is one among a number of Langston Hughes' poems that Dave and his wife Iola selected for text:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
These four lines recur periodically, and Brubeck uses tender, poignant melodies and counterpoints to convey the powerful image of a broken-winged bird. Yet the thrust of the work is that, even though life is difficult and there is great sadness along the way, the "dreams" that are squeezed out of this "veil of tears" make it worthwhile. This becomes crystal clear when the combined choruses ring out "Boogie 1 A.M.":
Good evening, daddy!
I know you've heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred
Trilling the treble
And twining the bass
Into midnight ruffles
Of cat-gut lace.
In this segment, the jazz quartet joined in, intensifying the gospel-like foot-stomping emotion, which elsewhere is muted or non-existent. Ron Kerber's "rock-and-roll 'em" saxophone riffs had the chorus swingin' and brought the house down. All this in a staid Presbyterian church in one of the most traditional, conservative towns in America!
I was interested to get a sense of how Brubeck's large-scale compositional ventures related to his world-renowned jazz quartet efforts. If this work is any indication, Dave's more "serious"? writing reflects the work of his mentor, Darius Milhaud, but goes beyond them. The Milhaud influence is heard in the parsimony of chords and timbres, but the main influence in "Hold Fast to Dreams" is romantic and post-romantic American music from MacDowell to Barber. This is no accident, because many of the song cycles written and sung by African Americans were from this era. The post-romantic feeling gives the composition an understated, even brooding quality, which is uncharacteristic of Brubeck-the-jazz-pianist, and brings out a different side of him. It also lends the power of contrast to the foot-stomping "Boogie 1A.M."
All of the singers and musicians in this performance were superb. I should give special mention to the classical pianist, Stephen Karr, the conductor, Frances Fowler Slade, the soprano Rochelle Ellis, and the baritone, Charles Wesley Evans. I was particularly taken by the singing of Ms. Ellis, who beautifully combined classical style with an expressionist grasp of African American spiritual music.
The Jim Ridl Quartet did a marvelous job, as well. Primarily, they improvised on the "tunes" that preceded each of their entrances. They performed as an independent ensemble, while at the same time complementing the choirs. Ridl's piano soloing was haunting and expressive. He did not make the mistake of trying to emulate Brubeck, but rather came from a place deep within himself, as he often does in his recordings. He treated the work as themes and variations, and provided some of his own richly woven elaborations on themes stated by Brubeck.
The audience rose to their feet at the end and gave a lengthy standing ovation. Everyone seemed to be on a "high"- and for good reason. For a period of time, they joyfully remembered who they were- part of a loving community where race and privilege had no relevance.
The Jim Ridl Jazz Quartet:
The Trenton Children's Chorus, Victor Shen, Artistic Director
The Covenant Singers, Sue Ellen Page and Victor Shen, Co-Directors
Charles Evans, Baritone
Rochelle Ellis, Soprano
Princeton Pro Musica:
Frances Fowler Slade - Music Director