Janinah Burnett Stretches Her Wings

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Janinah Burnett

(Photo: John Keon)

As a renowned classical soprano, Janinah Burnett’s repertoire includes opera, oratorios, art songs, spirituals and, perhaps surprisingly, jazz and r&b.

Or perhaps it’s not so surprising, considering that Burnett is the daughter of Carl Burnett, drummer for Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver, Nancy Wilson and other legendary jazz artists. “My mother tells me that, as a baby, Nancy Wilson held me,” Burnett said. “That must have given me some good energy.”

She showcases that energy and her stylistic range in her first album, Love The Color Of Your Butterfly (Clazz Records), alternating between her classical voice and her jazz voice, sometimes in the course of a single song. She performs works by Duke Ellington (two songs from his Sacred Concerts, but also “In A Sentimental Mood”), a mash-up of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” and Bizet’s instantly recognizable “Habañera” from Carmen, the tragic aria “E Lucevan Le Stelle” from Puccini’s Tosca, Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy,” the spiritual “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” and r&b songs from Sade and Donny Hathaway.

The disc is produced by drummer Terreon “Tank” Gully, a veteran of ensembles led by Christian McBride, Stefon Harris and John Beasley. He is also responsible for much of the highly creative, nontraditional arranging. A friend of Burnett’s since their days at Spelman College, Gully called in an exceptional group of musicians to accompany her: pianists Christian Sands, Sullivan Fortner and Keith Brown; bassists Luques Curtis and Ben Williams, and Casey Benjamin on vocoder.

Burnett’s classical credentials are impeccable. After singing both classical and jazz music at Spelman, she earned a master’s in vocal performance and literature at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Fresh out of graduate school, she landed the starring role of Mimi in Baz Luhrmann’s hit 2002 Broadway production of La Bohème. She has spent eight years with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and has toured internationally in a production of the Gershwins’ monumental opera Porgy And Bess, playing the roles of Bess and Clara.

But she feels propelled to sing jazz by “the ancestors,” she said. She is, in fact, just the latest in the long tradition of artists blending classical music with African-American genres like jazz, blues and spirituals. That list includes Duke Ellington and many other composers including the Gershwins, Scott Joplin, Harry Lawrence Freeman and H. Leslie Adams, one of whose art songs Burnett sings on the new album. “There is so much about American music that remains hidden,” she said. “All of the music was there. All I had to do was sing it.”

Burnett was unsure whether to use classical or jazz musicians on the album. “Terreon insisted on people who spoke the language of jazz, and he had to convince me. He felt that jazz musicians could more easily stretch out into these other idioms,” she said.

“In my experience working with some of the best musicians in the world, I knew that they also study classical music,” Gully said. “They had all the things they would need — technique, facility, familiarity with the classical repertoire, interpretation — but also knew how to play jazz.”

At first, Burnett was nervous about working with such top-flight jazz artists, “because it’s a new thing we were doing — new for me and for them.” She relaxed as she began to realize that her collaborators shared a deep understanding of the nuances of jazz and classical music.

“That’s what I discovered from doing this album: that if you speak the language of music well, there’s nothing you can’t do.” DB



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