Monday, December 22, 2008
Craig Harris' God's Trombones - Revisiting James Weldon Johnson through Music-Drama
[Picture Above: Harlem Artist, Aaron Douglas' God's Trombones, 1926]
I saw God's Trombones Sunday, December 7 with mom at Harlem Stage.
Craig Harris does jazz, and he does jazz just right. If you don’t know about him, look him up.
Full disclosure, I’m a bit partial to this piece, as I encountered it first during my day job at the Apollo. The Apollo Theater has supported the development of this unique work of music-theatre--in the Apollo Salon Series in 2006, and a during two-week run in 2007.
God’s Trombones is a set of musical, dramatic, and sermonic pieces derived from James Weldon Johnson’s collection of poems of the same name. Craig Harris has taken that core text and set it to music, with four voices, keyboards, drums, a euphonium, tuba, and full trombone shout choir. It’s a very interesting 21st-century mix of early 20th century poetry and musical forms--Trombone Choirs have a long history in the US and Europe, and Shout Bands are an under-explored facet of musical culture in the American South. This was an evocative experience that feels timely, very “right now,” even as its roots in form and substance are nearly a century removed.
The musicianship here was first rate. I particularly enjoyed the organ solos, and of course some of Craig Harris’ own trombone features. But the band is at its best when it lays down those bluesy, full harmonies with thumping, down-home rhythms – that, yes, we get from the church.
It’s a beautiful piece that I thoroughly enjoy every time I see it. Avery Brooks directed this version, with my good friend Elizabeth Herron as assistant director. There were some changes since I saw it last. For one, there were two male voices and two female singing voices (instead of a signing trio with a fourth speaking voice last time). This means the songs made use of four part harmony. This vocal troupe also cultivated an ensemble blend, whereas the prior version really pushed forward the contrast between the different voices.
As suggested in the title, God definitely is present in this work. It has a transcendent element rooted in Western theological ideals. This is familiar territory for me. The idiom at work here is the Church, the black church. At the same time, this is no heavy-handed evangelical event. I think it’s pretty inviting to a general audience, regardless of religious background.
I also think there is more room to get into the “drama” of the music-drama. Much of this is achieved through the staging, textual rendition and dance. A single dancer helps tell some of the story. This works. Yet watching God’s Trombones this second go round, I see opportunities to bring the drama to the fore. The audience feels it; the band feels it; the vocalists feel it; the dancer feels it. But not with the exuberant abandon I see so often in the black church (from the shout to the shout out to the fall out). Everything is under firm control on stage, yet I think there is a way to access more raw emotion in way that is both sincere and sensitive, not overblown. But that’s just me, perhaps.
Featuring: Craig Harris (conductor + trombone)
Kevin Anthony (vocals)
Gina Breedlove (vocals)
LaTanya Hall (vocals)
Trent Kendall (vocals)
Alfred Patterson (trombone)
Curtis Fowlkes (trombone)
Gary Valente (trombone)
Joe Daley (euphonium)
Adam Klipple (keyboards)
Tony Lewis (drums)
Bob Stewart (tuba)
and dance by Chanon Judson.