“Songs for the Soul” – UNDINE SMITH MOORE: Afro-American Suite; THOMAS JEFFERSON ANDERSON: Spirit Songs; WILLIAM BANFIELD: Soul Gone Home; ANTHONY KELLEY: Grist for the Mill – Mallarme Ch. Players/Nnenna Freelon/Wm. Banfield – Albany

by | Sep 10, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

“Songs for the Soul” – UNDINE SMITH MOORE: Afro-American Suite for flute, cello & piano; THOMAS JEFFERSON ANDERSON: Spirit Songs for cello & piano; WILLIAM BANFIELD: Soul Gone Home for vocalist & piano; ANTHONY KELLEY: Grist for the Mill for flute, clarinet, cello & percussion – Mallarme Chamber Players/ Nnenna Freelon, vocalist/ William Banfield – Albany Records TROY 1190, 70:04 *****:

The contributions made by African American Composers over the years have been appreciable and, inherently American but not nearly as well known as they should be. Some of the names are deservedly etched in history – Samuel Coleridge Taylor, William Grant Still, Scott Joplin, Margaret Bonds. Others, like Alvin Singleton, Anthony Davis, Adolphus Hailstork and so many others, are producing excellent classical works right now and also deserve to be heard. I have been personally involved in producing concerts of works by these composers and others and so this disc immediately caught my attention. It does not disappoint!

The works contained are diverse in nature and all very well written and wonderfully performed. The “Afro-American Suite” by Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) is comprised of simple beautiful melodies from traditional spiritual and folk song sources, both American and Caribbean in their origin. The songs, accompanied by flute, cello and piano, are completely tonal, tuneful and vary in mood from upbeat and celebratory to plaintive and reflective.

I first became aware of the music of Thomas Jefferson Anderson (b.1928) through the wonderful early 1970s Columbia recordings of music by African American composers; in this case a terrific piece for full orchestra, “Squares” (Columbia, M33434. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Paul Freeman, Conductor. 1975) Anderson’s “Spirit Songs” for cello and piano is a more angular piece. Written for Yo-Yo Ma, this work is also based on spirituals but in a much more contemporary idiom, containing a few jazz inflections and complex rhythmic patterns. This is another in Anderson’s long list of accessible and interesting but challenging to perform concert works.

A highlight of this collection is “Soul Gone Home” by William Banfield, presently head of the Africana Studies, Music and Society program at Berklee College. This is a setting of a short play, basically, by the great American poet Langston Hughes. The story concerns a mother trying to reconcile some conflicts with her son and his dubious acquaintances. The scoring for “vocalist” and small ensemble relies on a fascinating range of jazz oriented lines, lyrical melody and more typically contemporary chamber feel. Everything depends on the verse. The use of vocalist instead of a pure soprano or alto is a very accurate reflection of the task at hand for the singer (in this case, a wonderful performance by Nnenna Freelon). Each section of the verse is set to its own tone; at times, almost a lullaby or an “art song”; at others, more of a blues improvisation. Some of the texts even call for almost a theatrical, non-sung reading. The contrasts are appropriate and utterly captivating. (Hear the difference in tone between “Mother’s Lament” and “Shame, shame, shame” for example).

The set concludes with the brief, tuneful and enjoyable “Grist for the Mill” for flute, cello, clarinet and percussion by Anthony Kelley, presently on the music faculty at Duke University. Composed for the performing ensemble, Mallarme, this engaging work consists of three movements with the imagery inducing titles, “Wolf Gyrator”, “Invincible Separator” and “”Bran Shaker”. This is very easy to listen to, somewhat jazz-influenced piece with quirky rhythms and some very engaging bursts of melody. This also sounds like it would be fun to play!

Kudos to all the composers and performers on this disc as well as to Dr. Anderson and his wife who, apparently, helped to sponsor its production along with the Copland Foundation. This disc is a terrific introduction to some composers who may not be familiar and whose music, uniformly, is reflective of their culture and personal history but which stands very favorably on its own as any good piece of music would.

— Daniel Coombs