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Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra: Harriet Tubman

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Harriet Tubman is an ambitious jazz opera, largely composed and arranged by bassist Marcus Shelby for his Jazz Orchestra. Shelby was a member of Black/Note, an ensemble that recorded for Blue Note and Impulse! during the first half of the 1990s.

The biographical heroine of this effort is the 18th-century woman who rose from slavery to become a freedom fighter, and later, a civil rights activist. Tubman has been universally recognized as one of the most inspirational African-Americans. Marcus Shelby, in researching the background for this work, visited the eastern shore of Maryland, where this story had its origins. Tubman lived there for 27 years before becoming the inspiration for the Underground Railroad, which she served as "the conductor."

This work most closely resembles the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields (Sony, 1997) by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Shelby's 15-piece orchestra and four-piece vocal ensemble are used in both spiritual segments as well as portions of the work that depict the lives of Harriet Tubman's parents—in addition to the life of Tubman herself. The opening tracks use blues forms to depict the union of Tubman's parents—with drummer Kenny Washington switching to vocals to sing the part of Ben Tubman—followed by the joy of "Ashanti Stomp," which celebrates the African ancestry of the Tubmans.

Faye Carol, who sings the role of Harriet Tubman, gives a gritty and soulful performance throughout the album, typifying Tubman's frustration at being a slave with the spirit of a freedom fighter on "I Will Not Stand Still." For "Ben (Passin' Time)," Washington again gives a resonant vocal delivery for this upbeat number.

The second part of this two-disc set shifts the theme to rebellion, as the slaves find escape through "Stampede of Slaves." This is linked to "Freedom Trail," which combines the two compositions with feelings of liberation in a joyous manner. Shelby's intent in using the American traditional spiritual "Go Down Moses" as a closing motif is an exhortation and encouragement to oppressed communities.

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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