Sometimes boisterous and sometimes contemplative, sometimes playful and sometimes thunderously powerful, Christian McBride’s “The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons” is one of those rare works of art that impresses not just with its depth, but with its breadth.
The work, initially written in 1998 but subsequently revised, had its New Jersey premiere at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 11, as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival. Also featuring an opening set by The Last Poets, joined by Newark mayor Ras Baraka, it was an uplifting and unforgettable evening.
McBride, who helps organize the festival in his capacity as NJPAC’s official jazz advisor, played bass and led his extremely versatile 17-piece big band, which was augmented by singer Alicia Olatuja and the 18-member Voices of the Flame choir. Between the instrumental segments, the big band provided sparse, atmospheric backing while poets Sonia Sanchez, Willie Perdomo and John Murillo and actor Dion Graham read the words of the four icons in McBride’s title: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali.
Sanchez, reading Parks’ words, had the most dramatic approach, reading in poetic meter and repeating certain words for emphasis.
King was represented by, among other things, a large portion of his legendary and always-worth-rehearing “I Have a Dream” speech.
Ali’s words sometimes added comic relief, with rim shots punctuating lines such as “I’m sure there’s a heaven in the sky and colored folks die and go to heaven. And there must be some colored angels. But where are they? They must be in the kitchen, preparing milk and honey.”
Though McBride initially wrote the piece when Barack Obama was just an Illinois state senator, he later added a section, titled “Apotheosis: November 4th, 2008,” in which the four orators take turns reading from Obama’s hopeful and galvanizing first presidential election victory speech.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” recited Sanchez, repeating “tonight” for emphasis. By doing so, she helped make us regard the concert itself as an “answer” to those who are wondering, after all that the country has been through in recent years, if the dream is really still alive.
Providing a perfect complement, the concert opened with a performance by The Last Poets, whose work in the 1960s and 1970s, fusing socially conscious poetry with music, was a major influence on future rappers and spoken word artists. The group’s lineup has undergone many changes over the years; it currently contains poets Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole, as well as percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde (who added a roiling undercurrent to most of the numbers). They were joined, throughout their half-hour set, by Newark mayor Ras J. Baraka, a poet whose father, the late Amiri Baraka, was a major influence on The Last Poets themselves with his poetry and activism.
As part of the set, Mayor Baraka gave a fiery reading of his own spoken word composition, “What We Want,” pumping up the crowd to a degree that poets (not to mention politicians) rarely do with lines like “We need our skies to be free from poison, to be able to breath in sunshine and feel the wind on our faces/We need an end to war and oppression/We need the people to own their own labor/We need every corner of every country developed and every community empowered.”
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