Review: DREAM SUITE: SONGS IN BLUES & JAZZ Is An Exceptional Evening at Birdland

By: Jun. 30, 2016
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Though somewhat familiar with and already an admirer of actor/vocalists Capathia Jenkins (left) and Alton Fitzgerald White (below), I was, until tonight, unaware of the apparently prolific musician, songwriter, librettist, and educator Louis Rosen (bottom). Rosen's Dream Suite, which occupied the second part of this June 28 show at Birdland, unearths the music of poems by American poet, social activist, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes (1902 -1967).

To say the composer set these to music doesn't describe the result. Rosen has respectfully taken the work of one of the earliest practitioners of jazz poetry and created symbiosis so organic, it's difficult to believe the two artists didn't work together; songs that reflect comprehension so visceral, Rosen slips a knot of race and history to reach the universal.

Dream Suite, also a newly minted CD, is comprised of 14 songs derived from 21 poems spanning from the 1920's through the 1950's. They're all brief, a few almost Haiku. Abrupt endings fade like vocal ombré, as if stepping back into shadow, two punctuated by Jenkins' deep sighs. Like those in Porgy and Bess, the songs arrive full blooded and black, hybrid American opera--here without libretto.

Musical roots lay in gospel, R & B, boogie-woogie, and blues. Some describe "Harlem" (a hood by any other name). Sentiments, however, transcend that limitation, clearly part of what the composer admires about the poet. (Dream Suite is one section of an ambitious three-part project including the poems of Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou.)

I admit being surprised at my reaction. Not usually a fan of the wandering lyric/elusive melody--Michael John LaChiusa's work for example--I found myself hypnotized.

Eight bars into the opening duet, one basks in the commitment of two, galvanizing, muscular voices. Latin music pulses and soars. Jenkins changes octaves by disappearing sound here and making it appear there. We never hear the route. Music seems to physically fill her. The intense Fitzgerald radiates pride and ardor. His vibrato is palpable. Both showcase impeccable control.

"Lullaby For a Black Mother" is protective, tender. Jenkins is a wellspring of feeling. One snuggles into her vocal. "Song for Billie Holiday" begins voluptuously acapella, like a muted, wrung out horn. "Blues at Dawn" rides in on snapped fingers: I don't start thinkin' in the morning . . . I don't dare remember in the morning . . . there's fitfulness to this one, but nothing the woman in the poem hasn't felt many times. She's careworn, but strong and womanly. Jenkins imbues the lyric with as much juice as gravitas. Even open throated, melody is fine grained.

At the piano, musical director/musician Kimberly Grigsby, a sylph in bare feet, is playing with the soul of experience she can't possibly have had. Grigsby strokes, demands, sashays, implores, disquiets, and buoys. She's formidably talented.

"Life is Fine" . . . fine as wine . . . emerges a cool, zoot-suited jazz riff. If he moved across the stage, Fitzgerald would parade. The performer barely gestures. A hand moves only when compelled. When he goes up an octave, it tantalizes. "Juke Box Love Song," languidly conjures heat rising from the streets, an open hydrant. The singer wants to dance with his sweet brown Harlem girl. Separately they sway. We see the couple get caught in love like uncombed hair. "Exits" embraces dark thinking like a friend--The Devil shuffling off to Hell.

Duets couldn't be better matched. "Dimout in Harlem" undulates and echoes. Shadows overlap. "Dream Suite" Good evenin' daddy, I know you've heard/The Boogie-woogie rumble of a dream deferred . . . is stylish, savvy, smooooth. "Gold and Brown" observes as a golden girl and college boy connect. It seductively sets the scene but leaves the tale to us. Listening to Jenkins and Fitzgerald meld voices, each an arresting presence, is simply exhilarating.

The first part of this evening introduced Louis Rosen as singer/songwriter. A fine acoustic guitarist, he presented compositions evidently so recent, paint was still wet. The literate, sincere, folksy "Dust to Dust Blues" . . . I seek out the holiness here in the wilderness . . . seemed like something with which Pete Seeger would've had affinity. "When the Window is Open" better grab your paintbrush (marvelous line) is tunefully good advice.

I imagined "I Don't Know Anything" intoned by the caterpillar of Alice in Wonderland. It's smoky and suggestive, inviting interpretation. The disquieting view is one from atop a sizeable mushroom. I'll be happy- go-lucky for awhile/in my irrepressibly middle class, bohemian style . . . Rosen sings bemused in "My Third Act," a wry look at the vicissitudes of getting on with it. "Lost in Love" is endearingly self-effacing. The artist has a gentle, weathered voice and easy style. He's a graceful advocate of understatement.

I feel genuinely lucky to have been present tonight.

Photos by Kevin Alvey


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