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Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra featuring Faye Carol: Harriet Tubman

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Bay Area bassist and orchestra leader Marcus Shelby conducts his jazz oratorio based on the life of legendary Underground Railroad heroine, Harriet Tubman. Her story doesn't lack for pathos or drama—either in its broad outline or in the smaller details. For example, while she was a teenaged slave, an overseer threw an iron weight at her head, nearly killing her and rendering her subject to seizures for the rest of her life.

As much as the recording might evoke the nineteenth-century milieu that was the setting for Tubman's apotheosis, it is equally likely to call to mind the heady politicized days of the early 1960s: Notably, Max Roach's We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960). Akin, too, to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's more recent historically-themed work, Shelby seems drawn to the unambiguous racial politics of the period. All of these examples derive, in turn, from Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige (1943).

These politics are translated musically as unabashedly heroic ensemble singing, with the refined aesthetic of the African-American choral tradition of the fine compilation Wade In The Water, Vol. 1: African-American Spirituals: The Concert Tradition (Smithsonian Folkways, 1994). This particular musical aesthetic is especially felt in soprano Jeannine Anderson's virtuoso passages, and the stirring closing treatment of "Go Down, Moses." The excellent instrumental soloing throughout appears reluctant to trouble the reverential mood, with the refreshing exception of alto saxophonist Gabe Eaton's more searing contributions.

Two considerations transform this recording from an exceedingly professional, but perhaps slightly wooden re-reading of the facts of a remarkable woman's life. One is Shelby's insightful musical strategy: "I have tried to organize this composition," he writes, "to reflect the sources of the language of jazz—field cries, blues hollers, work songs, spirituals, scat singing—and to portray this music's profound relationship to Harriet Tubman's heroic story." And indeed, Shelby's panoply of musical styles and settings presents Tubman's life as a veritable genealogy of American jazz.

The second and most important factor here is Faye Carol's performance in the title role. Carol, a longtime presence on the Bay Area scene, but unjustifiably underappreciated, breathes life into Harriet Tubman. Her growling, bluesy delivery gives us Tubman not as an icon, but as a gritty, tough woman with personality, convictions and singularities. Carol's Tubman is the perfect counterweight to the historical diorama erected by Shelby's score and the concert-hall vocalists: The piece canonizes Tubman appropriately, but Carol's musical prowess humanizes her.

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 Delaware. 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.

Title: Harriet Tubman | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Noir Records

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