Uri Caine – The Passion Of Octavius Catto

by | Sep 5, 2019 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Uri Caine – The Passion Of Octavius Catto – 816 Music 816-1904, 29:55 *****:

(Uri Caine – composer, piano; Andre Raphel – conductor/The Catto Freedom Orchestra; The Nedra Neal Singers/ Director: Nedra Neal; The Philadelphia Choral Ensemble/Director ; Jay Fluellen; Barbara Walker – solo vocals; Mike Boone – bass; Clarence Penn – drums)

The modern Civil Rights Movement was epitomized by Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s. The genesis for this dates back over a century. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Harriet Tubman are among the most recognizable figures of that area. For Philadelphians, Octavius Catto is an eternal symbol of the passionate fight for Civil Rights in America. Born a free man in South Carolina (1839), the Civil Rights activist, educator and local baseball legend was murdered in South Philadelphia (at the intersection of 9th and South Street). This horrific act ended the transformative life and times of this extraordinary individual. His indelible mark on history includes the Pennsylvania ratification of the pivotal 13th, 14thy and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery and set the stage for civil and voting rights for citizens.

Pianist, composer and fellow Philadelphian Uri Caine (who has played with local jazz legends like Hank Mobley, Philly Joe Jones and Grover Washington Jr.)  has composed a jazz oratorio (The Passion Of Octavius Catto) to bring additional enlightenment to a seminal historical figure. Commissioned by The Mann Center For The Performing Arts and the Pew Center For The Arts, the ten-part musical project is unique for its amalgamation of classical, jazz trio and gospel music supplemented by 37- pace chamber orchestration (The Catto Freedom Orchestra/conducted by Andre Raphel), and 32-piece gospel chorale arrangements. Originally performed at the Mann Center in 2014, this recording was completed on August 23, 2018 at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York. In what can be described as an examination of the  contradictory nature of our humanity, Caine delineates various cultural touchstones of Catto’s life and 19th Century civil rights politics. The opening “Prologue” serves as an introduction to Catto with classical processional accents and rich gospel choir. A dissonant instrumental (“The Mob Burns Down Pennsylvania Hall”) mixes strings, reeds and horns in ominous flourishes. This event was an anti-abolitionist event that happened in 1938.

The overall mood shifts out of foreboding to a religious affirmation on “No East No West” (a reference to a pair of Octavius Catto speeches) . The stirring vocals by Barbara Walker soar above the rhythmic piano and mesmerizing singing of The Nedra Neal Singers and The Philadelphia Choral Ensemble. Shifting to historical conflict, “The Philadelphia Streetcar Protests (March 1867)” recounts the story of Caroline Le Count a teacher (and Catto’s fiance) who was denied access to transportation after tending to wounded Civil War soldiers. Walker’s anguished vocals begin with “No! I can’t get a ride in Philadelphia!” in gospel tempo. There is an angry musical interlude with a plaintive transition (“Why do you deny my dignity?”), before the return to a “Yes I can ride in Philadelphia” denouement. There are numerous orchestral flourishes that provide texture to the context. In a mixture of Americana and avant-garde, “Baseball Star of 1867” is a 3:12 opus acknowledging Catto’s work as the founder, manager and shortstop of the Pythian Base Ball Club. “Change” relies on the energetic gospel vocals expressing defiance (”Agitate! Educate! Vindicate! Until the people will be changed”). The resounding confirmation of the human spirit prevails on “The Amendments”. The rock grooves and church enthusiasm drive the narrative of rightful destiny as the choir intones, “We shall not be denied! We shall not be abridged!”

The anguish of “Murder” is a flexible orchestral piece with menacing, swirling accents and somber finish. “The Lament Of Caroline Le Count” feels like a gospel opera as Walker (in the voice of Le Conte) cries out for lost love (“Your wife, our life, forever gone”) and incomprehensible exasperation (“Why do they kill our knights in shining armor, bringing pain and sorrow?”). it is heart-wrenching. The healing power of gospel has resounded throughout American history. As a finale, “The Martyr Rests” is a spiritual awakening with spine-tingling vocals by Walker and chorus, stately orchestra motifs and a reverent hushed conclusion.

The Passion Of Octavius Catto is a living history lesson, not just for Civil Rights or Philadelphia, but for all of humanity. Uri Caine’s musical expertise and fervent immersion into this 19th Century socio-political event is urgent and timeless. The choir/vocal arrangements are evocative. It is a brilliant 30 minute introspection of cultural identity.

The Mobs Burn Down Pennsylvania Hall (May 17, 1838)
No East No West
The Philadelphia Streetcar Protests March (March 1867)
Baseball Star Of 1867
The Amendments; Murder (October 10, 1871)
The Lament Of Caroline Le Count
The Martyr Rests (October 16, 1871)

—Robbie Gerson

More Information available at Uri Caine’s Website:

The Passion of Octavius Catto, Album Cover


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