African-American composer Zenobia Powell Perry -- apparently no relation to the younger composer Julia Perry -- came from an interesting confluence of influences; born in Oklahoma, Perry's mother was a Creek Indian and her grandfather was a black Creek Indian who had been a slave of the Creek Indians. She studied composition with R. Nathaniel Dett, Darius Milhaud, and composer Allen Willman of the University of Wyoming. Perry's extant output begins in the mid-'50s and runs to about 1990; she died in 2004 at the age of 95, and most of her works date from the 1960s and '70s. Perry did write orchestral music and at least one opera, Tawawa House, in 1987, but the Cambria Music disc Music of Zenobia Powell Perry concentrates on works created in smaller dimensions: art songs and song cycles, a clarinet sonata, and several works for piano. This disc was originally issued in 2002 on the Jaygale Music label and sold at concert tours, mostly given in and around the state of Ohio in the last years of her life. Among the performers here, soprano Janis-Rozena Peri has a special relationship to this repertoire as she is Perry's daughter and long an advocate of her mother's music. Pianists John Crotty, Deon Nielsen Price, clarinetist Berkeley A. Price, and flutist Joyce Catalfano also take part. These players are, or were, longstanding members of university faculties; tenor Darryl Taylor, however, is a well-known advocate of African-American art songs.
The recordings making up this disc were produced in two different places, and the package does specify exactly what was made where, but there is clearly a difference; the tracks made by Crotty as pianist are in a lightly recessed, somewhat reverberant soundscape that is much easier on the ear than those featuring Price, whose piano sounds very upfront, naked, and bright. Some of the performances are less than ideal; the first movement of the clarinet sonata, "Fast," is full of rhythmic confusion and it's hard to tell if this was caused by the players or by Perry's score. The other two movements sound OK, though; it's still not a strongly compelling performance, however, and there appears to be a bad edit in the piano part. The lion's share of the singing is provided by Peri, who obviously knows this material back and forth and, for the most part, delivers it effectively, though on some selections she is not in the freshest voice. Finally there is a passage of melody in the song "Life" from Perry's Cycle of Songs on Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1977-1983) that is most ungracious and does not come off winningly, although Taylor excels in every other measure of this music. These shortcomings, however, do not mean that this recording is entirely without value for listening. The solo piano pieces are captivating; while the Sonatine (1963) demonstrates the influence of Milhaud, and perhaps to a small extent that of Paul Hindemith, there is a rhythmic arc within its last section that clearly recalls the sound of Native American music, unusually grafted to modern, Western harmony though also utilizing modes in a manner similar to shape of Native American ceremonial singing. The settings of "Sinner Man So Hard, Believe!" (1969) and "Pastourelle" (1971, from the Threnody Song Cycle) are beautifully realized and confident pieces, and Peri does lend considerable character and humor in her interpretation of "Kid Stuff" (1968, from the cycle Heritage and Life).
The academic reaction to Perry's life and work is so typical that one can almost predict how Perry will be contextualized, as evidenced by the title of her biography, American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century. However, when it comes down to the context of Perry's music itself, it's really very interesting; her considerable output was hard won from the challenges of teaching, parenting, and racism/sexism, and achieved mostly in her retirement years, but as she moved through it, Perry developed an assured and very personal musical voice. The latest work on the program, Homage to William Levi Dawson on his 90th Birthday, is also one of the very best. While Cambria's Music of Zenobia Powell Perry may be the only disc wholly devoted to this composer's work available, one may hope that it doesn't remain so.