Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Branford Marsalis’ New Soundtrack Salutes an Iconic Blues Heroine

Continuing this month’s theme of big, ambitious projects, one of this year’s most entertaining new albums is Branford Marsalis’ original score to the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, streaming at Spotify.

Although conventional wisdom says it never could have happened, a hundred years ago some of the most successful bandleaders in the world were women. Ma Rainey was the first national blues star, and paved the way for the bestselling megastar of the 20s and early 30s, Bessie Smith. It’s about time Rainey, whose theatrics and sardonic persona spoke for a generation of indomitable black women, got the props she deserved, and Marsalis delivers a score that does her justice. The production values are purist, but in the here and now: Marsalis doesn’t try to recreate any kind of rustic ambience or trebly imitation of Rainey’s iconic 78 RPM records.

Singer Maxayn Lewis delivers the songs with an expressive alto that’s grittier than Rainey’s signature, understatedly brooding delivery. The opening number, Deep Moaning Blues, sets the stage for the rest of the record, with horns, piano, bass and drums, the latter two seldom found in a recording studio at the time Rainey was making 78s. The song is also almost twice as long as anything that could be squeezed into the shellac at the time.

Marsalis and the trombone engage in a genial barroom conversation in the blues Hear Me Talking to You. The Story of Memphis Green is a haunting minor-key theme, veering in and out of waltz time, with moody clarinet carrying the melody.

Clarinet, trumpet and tapdancing take centerstage in Jump Song, a lively midtempo 20s swing tune. Leftovers, a grimly incisive minor-key solo piano theme, is the album’s most minimalist yet most haunting interlude.

Other highlights among the set pieces include the title theme, a red-neon hokum blues; the Chicago El portrayed with steady, chuffing dixieland echoes; a catchy, brassy New Orleans sway with tuba and banjo; a cheery swing tune for soprano sax and piano; an artfully orchestrated rag; a towering sax-versus-piano tableau; a steely minor-key Gershwin Summertime paraphrase, and plenty of humorous, vaudevillian bits. Fans of classic blues and jazz have a lot to enjoy here.

January 26, 2021 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment