Jazz Notes 03/19/08


Ask your mama about Langston

This Monday, a long-form poem by Langston Hughes will be revived in a performance featuring spoken word, projected images and a jazz quartet. “Ask Your Mama, 12 Moods for Jazz” will be presented at Butler University by The Langston Hughes Project.

Dr. Ron McCurdy, chairperson and professor of music in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, is a longtime fan of Hughes’ piece, an 800-word poem in 12 parts written in the early ’60s.

McCurdy told me how he became involved: “Originally, Hughes planned on collaborating with iconic jazz composer/bassist Charles Mingus,” orchestrating music cues that Hughes had written for the piece. “Hughes died in 1967. A colleague of mine, Eli Burgoman, met [with me] five years ago, studied the poem and composed original tunes to Hughes’ musical cues.

“There is a leitmotif that flows throughout the poem,” McCurdy continued. “We decided to use W.C. Handy’s ‘Hesitation Blues’ to musically represent that leitmotif. We also composed original music for each of the varied moods that Langston Hughes wrote to complete the musical moods to his poem.”

McCurdy pointed out that the piece has remained socially and culturally relevant despite the passing of years.

McCurdy, a trumpeter, will lead his jazz quartet in a free performance of “Ask Your Mama” at 7:30 p.m. March 24 in Butler University’s Atherton Union Reilly Room. The performance is open to the public.

This week: Lancton, Greene

The Jazz Kitchen will resound with heated Latin rhythms when the big Orquesta Bravo! group plays Friday, March 21. Bill Lancton and his Indy Guitar Summit will feature four local top jazz guitarists in an evening of swinging and challenging musical interaction Saturday, March 22. The featured guest guitarist for the night is Chicago’s Henry Johnson, who’s noted for his recording work with Nancy Wilson and Ramsey Lewis. Show times both nights are 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.

If you haven’t heard Everett Greene’s mellow voice around town lately, that’s because he’s touring with the Count Basie Orchestra as its featured vocalist.

Last week: Monterey Jazz

Last Thursday, the Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary All-Stars played to a capacity audience at the Madame Walker Theatre. Jazz fans flew in from out of state for a night they won’t forget.

The MJF Stars got right down to business, opening with the frenetic “Bebop,” which featured blistering solos all around.

Legendary saxophonist James Moody balanced that virtuosity with his whimsically humorous “Moody’s Mood For Love.” Thursday night was the first time on the tour that he performed his signature “Moody’s Mood.”

Singer Nnenna Freelon was captivating the whole evening with her pristine sound. Equally impressive was watching her graceful hands: They seemed to grab notes out of the air as she applied vocal nuance to the melody.

Pianist Benny Green was both brilliant as an accompanist and displaying his massive solo technique. Derrick Hodges’ bass was a tower of strength beside the dynamic timekeeping of Kendrick Scott. Hodges and Scott covered a wide range of moods and rhythms with sensitivity.

The high point of the night was trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s performance of two tunes from his recent Grammy Award-winning album A Tale of God’s Will: A Requiem For Katrina. Blanchard played two tunes about his hometown New Orleans from the album: “Levees” and “Funeral Dirge.”

It was moving to watch and hear Blanchard’s emotions rise to the surface. He agonized as he shouted, slurred and pinched notes out of the mouth of his horn. It was most moving when he cried in his horn; I saw his face covered in sweat with tears flowing from the corners of his eyes.

The audience was mesmerized as Blanchard musically bared his soul. Following the songs, the room rose en masse to its feet in a thunderous sustained ovation. It was also Blanchard’s 46th birthday. Walking on stage amongst the applause, Freelon said it all to the audience: “We just went to church.”