Marsalis & Friends Honor the Jazz Spirit of Ralph Ellison at NJPAC

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Catherine Russell (left), Patti Austin and Angélique Kidjo perform in a tribute to author Ralph Ellison at NJPAC in Newark, New Jersey, on Nov. 1.

(Photo: © Anthony Alvarez Photography)

Jazz and blues were central to Ralph Ellison, author of the 1952 novel Invisible Man. Reminiscing about his childhood in Oklahoma, he wrote, “In those days it was either live with music or die with noise. …”

The star-studded tribute to the late author on Nov. 1—featuring saxophonist/bandleader Andy Farber and his orchestra, with vocalists Patti Austin, Catherine Russell and Angélique Kidjo, with special guest Wynton Marsalis—was indeed a joyful noise, alive with the sound of Ellison’s favorite musicians, including Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing. Emmy-winning actor Joe Morton, hip-hop legend Talib Kweli and Ellison scholar Robert G. O’Meally were also on hand to recite selections from Ellison’s oeuvre of fiction and nonfiction.

The brainchild for this event— part of the multi-week TD Bank James Moody Jazz Festival—was Don Katz, Founder and CEO of Audible, Inc., a company specializing in digital spoken audio entertainment. In the ’70s, Katz was a student of Ellison’s at New York University, and in pre-concert remarks, Katz fondly recalled Ellison’s invaluable and inspiring lessons on race, music and American culture.

Inspired by a 2014 New Yorker piece on Ellison’s impressive record collection (which was later exhibited at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem) Katz recruited Farber, a Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra alumnus who teaches composition and arranging at The Juilliard School.

Farber’s big band, which included Ellington trombonist Art Baron, brilliantly blended Count Basie’s 4/4 Kansas City swing with Ellington’s sepia-toned “panorama of sound” without becoming a bland imitation of either band.

Their renditions of Ellington’s “Cottontail” and Monk’s boppish “52nd Street Theme” were rendered in crisp, quicksilver precision, and a tearful take on Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” shined a spotlight on the rhythm section: guitarist James Chirillo, bassist Jennifer Vincent, drummer Alvester Garnett and pianist Adam Birnbaum, whose florid pianism moved the composition toward John Coltrane’s “Crescent.”

With a sense of swing firmly in place, the program’s vocalists rose to the occasion. Russell sashayed and shimmied her silken vocals on Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue,” “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “I Cover The Waterfront.”

Decked out in white, Austin was in complete command of the jazz vocal idiom—from her horn-like phrasing to her in-the-pocket scatting—reminding everybody that she was Dinah Washington’s goddaughter. Her take on the Basie Old Testament chestnut, “Boo Hoo,” would have made the “Queen Of The Blues” smile.

The inclusion of Benin-born singer Kidjo was brave and bold, and while she delivered impassioned performances of Ellington’s “Ain’t But The One,” from his Sacred Concerts, and Rushing’s “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town,” it was clear that this was not material she was familiar with.

Guest soloist Marsalis eloquently spoke of Ellison’s “soulful” love for his wife, Fanny. Marsalis’ heartfelt remembrances of Ellison imbued his scintillating take on “Stardust,” which Marsalis performed at Ellison’s memorial service in 1994. Austin and Marsalis next traded serious fours on Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” complete with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.

But Ellison’s brilliant prose was the night’s true star. In their reading of Ellison’s work, Morton, Kweli and O’Meally brought the house down with impassioned readings. Ellison’s brilliant essay on Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where bartenders are said to “come fresh off of the ships and planes … to buy drinks and stand looking about for the source of the mystery,” was the highlight of the evening.

Equally stunning were the photos and video footage of Ellison projected onto a screen behind the performers—from his infamous, head-bandaged Tuskegee school ID picture to a rare clip of Ellison reading from Juneteeth.

By the time all the performers returned to the stage for a rousing finale of “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” there was a photo of Ellison, eternally handsome, looking toward the bright future that awaited him.




On Sale Now
June 2019
Jeremy Pelt
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