Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sweet Honey in the Rock – A Tribute, Live! Jazz at Lincoln Centre

A Tribute, Live! Jazz at Lincoln Centre
Appleseed Recordings

I well remember the first time I saw Sweet Honey in the Rock at the Mariposa Folk Festival, circa 1974. It was an electrifying performance of powerful songs made even more powerful by the stunning a cappella vocals of the group of African American women singers then led by the great Bernice Johnson Reagon who had been one of the Freedom Singers in the 1960s.

Over the years, I’ve seen them perform numerous other times and followed their recordings and evolution as various group members have come and gone over an almost four decade period. One folk festival performance I particularly remember – it was at either the Winnipeg or Vancouver Folk Festival sometime in the 1980s – because I was watching it from the backstage viewing area in the company of my friend Odetta, the legendary and highly influential folksinger. Odetta was exuding an infectious joyousness as she listened to them. Near the end of the set, they called her out on stage with them. Hearing Odetta sing with Sweet Honey in the Rock was nothing short of incredible.

I produced a bunch of concerts for Odetta in Montreal in the 1980s and something she always did at those concerts was what she called “honoring the ancestors.” By ancestors she meant the singers and songmakers who came before her such as Lead Belly, Paul Robeson, Josh White and many others. She did this by singing their songs, or songs associated with them, in her own distinctive way and letting us know that she, like the ancestors, like those who followed, and those of us listening and singing along, were all links in an ongoing chain.

A Tribute: Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center, a 2-CD set documenting two special concerts recorded in New York City in April 2011, is a different kind of Sweet Honey in the Rock album.

For one, it was a tribute concert honoring four of Sweet Honey’s “ancestors”: Miriam Makeba, the great South African singer; Nina Simone, who defied all categories blending jazz, soul, blues, folk and popular music in her distinctive style; Abbey Lincoln, the great jazz singer and songwriter; and, of course, Odetta.  

For another, for the first time (so far as I know) Sweet Honey was accompanied on most of the selections by a terrific jazz trio of pianist Stacey Wade, bassist Parker McAllister and drummer Jovol Bell. The three musicians and the five singers of Sweet Honey in the Rock – Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahill, Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson – blend wonderfully. They sound like they’ve been working together for years.

Most of the songs chosen for the concert were drawn from the repertoires of the four honorees and Sweet Honey’s interpretations both honor the versions of the ancestors and bring something new and distinctive. I’ve absolutely no doubt that all four – each of whom passed away sometime in the past decade – would have been very proud.

But even before introducing songs drawn from the repertoires of the honorees, Sweet Honey opened the concert in their traditional a cappella style with the very beautiful “Breaths,” a Sweet Honey classic they’ve been performing for three decades. The song itself honors the concept of ancestors and as this performance ends the names of several great musical ancestors – including Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta – are recited.

Among the many highlights on this album are amazing versions of “The Midnight Special,” a Lead Belly song that was one of Odetta’s signature pieces, the always infectious “Pata Pata,” Miriam Makeba’s big hit, a jazzy rendition of “Trouble in Mind,” performed by Sweet Honey’s Louise Robinson with the jazz trio, and a haunting interpretation of “Another Man Done Gone,” with both stunning vocals and violin playing by Ysaye Maria Barnwell.

As great as it is to hear Sweet Honey with the band, my very favorite piece on the album is performed a cappella. “Freedom Suite,” is an Odetta-style medley encompassing “Oh Freedom,” “Come and Go with Me to that Land,” I’m On My Way to Freedom Land” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” The four songs are a great reminder of why Odetta was known as “the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.”

In its entirety, A Tribute is a beautiful and very powerful blending of various folk, jazz, blues and African musical styles.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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