New Black Music Repertory Ensemble

Recorded Music of the African Diaspora

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The Albany label has consistently released strong recordings of concert music by African American composers, and with this release it inaugurates a new series entitled Recorded Music of the African Diaspora. That's a broad topic, and the two pieces offered up as an introduction are quite diverse. But they hang together well as a pair. Mary D. Watkins is a San Francisco Bay Area pianist and composer who has broadened her palette from jazz piano to orchestral music. Five Movements in Color is close to what its title suggests: the work is episodic, given to signs of Africanism, and in many places directly referring to or even moving into the realm of jazz. It's an attractive, kinetic piece, but the real news here is Olly W. Wilson's Of Visions and Truth (1991). This song cycle for three vocalists and small ensemble is described by the composer as "my personal reflection on the historical status of African-American males in American society." Wilson sets four texts (given in the booklet, which is in English only), two traditional and two by African American poets, and there are two interludes. The work entails a fusion of modernist techniques with an African American vernacular idiom, and it is Wilson' genius, rivaled by few in this small but fascinating field of American composition, that neither pole is weakened in its attraction by the presence of the other. Sample the opening movement, based on the spiritual I've Been 'Buked, for an idea of how Wilson weaves together the declamation patterns of traditional African American song with a non-tonal but pitch-centered language. The work was dedicated to the three singers who gave its premiere, and Albany and the musicians of the New Black Repertory Ensemble in Chicago have done a service by reviving it with new performers; it seems destined to make the cut. Of the new vocal trio, Three Mo' Tenors member Rodrick Dixon and baritone Donnie Ray Albert stand out in the extended and very powerful finale, If We Must Die, setting Claude McKay's sonnet of slave resistance. Highly recommended.

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