Christian McBride Brings ‘Movement Revisited’ to Kennedy Center

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McBride’s ambition was to honor Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

Christian McBride helped commence the Kennedy Center’s Black History Month celebration on Feb. 4 with a rousing performance of The Movement Revisited, a colossal production involving his big band complemented with the Howard Gospel Choir of Howard University (directed by J.D. Steele), vocalist Alicia Olatuja and oratory performances from actors Keith David, Tamara Tunie, Dion Graham and Vondie Curtis-Hall.

When Mack Avenue Records released the recording of Movement Revisited in February 2020, the world had yet to confront the inescapable coronavirus pandemic or multiple protests for racial justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Movement Revisited was almost prophetic as a brooding-yet-hopeful reminder of the sociopolitical strides the country has made against insurmountable adversity thanks in large part to the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and President Barack Obama.

Two years after its release, Movement Revisited reverberates with even more poignancy, given how the world continues to struggle with the pandemic, which has exposed many inequities that fall on intersecting racial and socioeconomic lines. Inside the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, Movement Revisited functioned as a beacon of hope amid unremittingly stormy times.

As regal as the album is, Movement Revisited live has a greater emotional sweep, particularly with the integration of spoken text and music. David’s bell-like baritone deftly carried the emotional and eloquent gravity of Dr. King’s words, particularly in passages from his “Strength to Love” and “I Have A Dream” speeches. Graham sublimely channeled Ali’s capricious gift for gab when narrating the boxer’s stance on race, being a cultural icon and audacious determination. Tunie embodied Parks’ quiet reserve and resolve in the face of adversity while retelling why she refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man in 1955. And Curtis-Hall personified the more enlightened and compassionate Malcolm X after his visit to Mecca in 1963.

Listening to music live also provided a true testament to McBride’s prowess as a composer of captivating long-term works. From the engrossing “Overture,” which slowly mutated from an orchestral lament to a prancing Afro-Latin stomp to the Soul Power-knockout “Rumble In the Jungle,” which featured spirited alto and tenor saxophone volleys from Steve Wilson and Ron Blake, and a lacerating drum solo from Terreon Gully, the music never ceased to engage.

But it was Olatuja’s sole performance on the haunting “Brother Malcolm” that stole the show. Her vocals tinged with grace and bottled fury against a backdrop of sorrowful choir harmonies, Geoff Keezer’s gospel-tinged piano passages, Blake’s haunting melody and McBride’s anchoring bass countermelodic improvisations. Once Olatuja belted a cathartic, dissonant wail toward the end, it summoned the concert’s loudest applause.

After the concert, McBride spoke with DownBeat about the research process behind Movement Revisited and how it evolved from a quartet piece to a large-scale production.

When did you begin research for the creation of Movement Revisited?

When I first got the commission from the Portland Arts Society in Maine, which was in 1998. I started buying a bunch of books and doing as much research as I could to figure out what quotes I was going to use for the piece.

Obviously with someone like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the hardest challenge was to whittle it down to just a few meaningful passages, because, let’s face it: If you pick any book with Martin Luther King speech or interview, you close your eyes and drop your finger, and you got yourself a meaningful passage. So, you have this plethora of options with King.

I didn’t find that to be case with Rosa Parks, because she was so humble and so soft-spoken. And just the volume of content wasn’t quite the same as it was with King or even Muhammad Ali. But I bought her book; and most of the Rosa Parks quotes that I used for the piece came from her book.

For Ali, a lot of quotes came various sources but there was this one documentary, Champions Forever, that came out in the early ’90s. Ali drops some really wonderful quotes in that document.

With Malcolm X, I specifically wanted to use as much text as I could from the last year of his life. Because I found that once he went to Mecca and saw the world as exactly that — a world — it feels like he became a sage. His wisdom just multiplied tenfold. I feel that a lot of us who love to quote Malcolm X tend to quote the low-hanging fruit — “the Nation of Islam/Elijah Muhammad” Malcolm X. But I’m not sure how people get down into the woods of his post-Nation of Islam life.

Talk about the process of composing the music.

When I first composed it in 1998, it was originally for quartet. So, the piece was nothing then like it is now. Movement Revisited in its current form really wasn’t written until 2008. That’s when I was creative chair for jazz programming with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I was just beginning to go into my third season and the program director pretty much said, “I read somewhere that you composed some piece about 10 years ago for Black History Month up in Portland, Maine. What was that?”

I told her about Movement Revisited. Once she was curious about it, I thought that this would be my opportunity to take advantage of the resources of the L.A. Philharmonic. So, I lied and said, “Yes, it was a piece I wrote for big band, mass choir and four narrators” — which was not the case when it was originally written; it was a quartet and a 20-piece choir; and the narrators were inside the choir. But the L.A. Philharmonic allowed me to expand the piece and write it in the way I could seize it on a much larger scale.

But in terms of musical references, it was challenge because obviously we’ve had Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Oliver Nelson and a whole lot of other jazz composers write long-form pieces. Wynton Marsalis had Blood On The Fields. Anthony Davis had X: The Life And Times Of Malcolm X. But I consciously didn’t want to sit down and listen to get ideas. I said, “I think I know enough about how words and music are put together. I think I can go from what I’m feeling and hearing and what I know to compose something at the very least good.” So, that’s kind of where it came from. I tried to make musical portraits of each one of those figures: Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and post-Nation of Islam Malcolm X.

At the end of 2008, I was booked to play Movement Revisited at Second Ebenezer Church when Barack Obama was elected. Terri Pontremoli, who was then the director of the Detroit Jazz Festival, told me that she would commission me to write music about Obama. Surely, the impact of Obama being elected as the 44th president of the United States was so great, it warrants a piece of music. But I didn’t want to write the music for Barack Obama just for himself. He hadn’t been officially sworn in when I started composing that last movement. That last movement was not for him, per se; it’s for the moment. Had it not been for the four icons, Nov. 4, 2008, wouldn’t have happened.

In light of how optimistic the country was in 2008 soon after Obama was elected, how does Movement Revisited function when there so much discord in the U.S. today, particularly with race relations? Was there any discussion, especially with the choir members from Howard University, about any of this while preparing for the performance?

If you don’t hold hope, you get depression, anarchy and mired in negative vibrations; you spiral out of control. That’s why I love Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter’s music, because they both have this way of filtering anger, pain and frustration into something hopeful and positive. It almost makes you put up our eyebrows and say, “Hey, we have a chance to do something about this and reverse the energy.”

There’s a part of me that’s like, “Always look above the fray. You got to fight. But let the music give you some sort of superpower.” In the modern world, social media is very powerful — and in many cases, in the wrong ways. But I do think there is a greater, spiritual power that music, poetry, dance — all the arts — gives us. The arts give us our superpowers. DB



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