Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Wild, Ferociously Lyrical Take on the History of Jazz Uptown

The Manhattan debut of the multimedia spectacle The Spirit of Harlem at Harlem School of the Arts this past evening was everything the final night of the Charlie Parker Festival wasn’t: cutting-edge, fearlessly political and often very funny. And trumpeter Dominick Farinacci’s lavish ensemble didn’t even venture beyond the classics, tunewise. On one hand, songs like Strange Fruit are eternal for a reason. On the other, it’s seldom that a band is able to reinvent them in a way that does justice either to the spirit or the quality of the original.

After Farinacci introduced that haunting number solo, setting a mood more pitchblende than indigo, Shenel Johns sang Abel Meeropol’s chronicle of a lynching with a Nina Simone-like steeliness, in a stark duet with bassist Jonathan Michel. Dapperly dressed rapper Orlando Watson – whose slashing metaphors and intricate flow unearthed innumerable connections between the history of jazz, the New Jim Crow, Black Lives Matter and other historical moments – would reference that song later on, a hybrid kind of fruit still hanging from the poplar trees.

The Spirit of Harlem, which Farinacci put together at the annual upstate Catskill Jazz Factory festival, debuted in Italy just last week, The symphonic part of the evening – with tight, inspired student ensemble the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra – turned out to be a world premiere, the entire cast pulling it together in rehearsal about three hours before showtime.

The show’s premise is to bring jazz history out of world of pedants and snobs, with unexpected new interpretations and a focus on legendary Harlem jazz shrines. Tapdancer Michela Marino Lerman dueled it out with pianist Mathias Picard, through an increasingly complicated series of stride tunes that ended with a feral take of Tiger Rag. She clearly won the early part of this cutting contest, but Picard really gave her a run for the money with a diabolically fast coda that would have made Art Tatum proud.

Not everything was a total reinvention, but even the more standard interpretations were a lot of fun. The group – which also included vibraphonist Christian Tamburr, tenor saxophonist Patrick Bartley Jr., and drummer Kyle Poole – romped through a phantasmagorical version of Minnie the Moocher that left no doubt what Minnie was smoking. Likewise, Bartley’s eerie duotones and Middle Eastern-tinged wails in tandem with Poole’s shamanistic attack in A Night in Tunisia – which then segued into Dizzy Atmosphere – conjured up the spirit of the early bebop sessions several blocks to the south at Minton’s.

Bartley and Picard got bittersweet and lyrical with a Monk medley beginning with a fleeting excerpt from Pannonica followed by a somewhat furtive take of Round Midnight. After a lavishly orchestrated, rather sentimental new salute to impresario Norman Granz, the entire cast made a quick coda out of Sing Sing Sing. If jazz is your thing, even if you find this material moldy and figgy, Watson’s lyrical firepower and the irrepressible fun of the rest of the show will win you over.

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August 27, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rap music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment