Songs from classic musical are reinvented in ‘The Sound of (Black) Music’

by JAY LUSTIG
sound of black music review

From left, Zhanna Reed, Charenée Wade, Alexis Lombre, Brianna Thomas and C. Anthony Bryant performed in the show, “The Sound of (Black) Music,” at NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 16.

There wasn’t a trace of jazz in the original version of “My Favorite Things,” from the 1959 Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II musical “The Sound of Music.” Despite that — or maybe, because of it — John Coltrane released a jazz version of it in 1961. And that recording has come to be regarded as a classic.

On Nov. 16, more than six decades after Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” the New York-based Electric Root collective brought its touring show “The Sound of (Black) Music” to the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark, as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival. The show featured new versions of most of the musical’s songs, including all of its best-known tunes with the exception of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”

Electric Root’s mission is “to heal, uplift and bring joy to diverse communities across the United States, celebrating the brilliance of Black music,” audience members were told before the music began. The show’s program, meanwhile, described its theme as recasting the “Sound of Music” songs “through a Black roots music kaleidoscope of jazz, gospel, blues, soul, funk and Afro-beat.”

Five singers (Zhanna Reed, Charenée Wade, Alexis Lombre, Brianna Thomas and C. Anthony Bryant) were joined by six instrumentalists (keyboardist Willerm Delisfort, guitarist Xander Naylor, bassist Nolan Nwanchukwu, drummer John Lumpkin, trombonist Rashaan Salaam and saxophonist Ruben Fox) in this show, which originally was co-curated by Electric Root co-founders Michael Mwenso and Jono Gasparro for the Black Roots Summer series at the Fisher Center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, in 2021.

Charenée Wade performs in “The Sound of (Black) Music.”

The musicians started off with an overture, after which Bryant sang lead on “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?,” making some notable lyrical changes (“I even heard her singing in the abbey,” for instance, because “she was singing jazz down in the abbey”). Due to Bryant’s comical, sharply enunciated delivery, this song was the one in the show that came closest to having the feel of traditional musical theater.

Reed sang lead on “I Have Confidence” (written by Rodgers for the 1965 film without Hammerstein, who died in 1960). It started as an introspective ballad but as the singer asserted faith in herself, it grew into bold, swirling funk, with an extended solo by Fox.

There were plenty of vocal pyrotechnics in the next two songs, Wade’s “My Favorite Things” and Lombre’s version of another movie-only song, “Something Good.” Bryant, singing lead on “Do-Re-Mi,” steered this simple children’s song, unexpectedly, toward a sense of almost operatic power. But it worked: By this point in the show, we were all expecting every song to be turned on its head.

A mellow group version of “The Sound of Music” was a rare downbeat, dreamily atmospheric moment in this dynamic show, and gave the singers an opportunity to sing some sweet harmonies with each other. An extended, high-energy “The Lonely Goatherd,” featuring Thomas and Wade, gave the singers an opportunity to explore the connections between yodeling and scat singing.

C. Anthony Bryant performs in “The Sound of (Black) Music.”

In perhaps the show’s most audacious move, Bryant began singing “Edelweiss” in a Zulu translation (by the show’s original musical director, Vuyo Sotashe) before switching to the English words and, ultimately, adding fiery soul-gospel flourishes to the final line, “Bless my homeland forever.”

Thomas took over for a powerfully anthemic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” with everyone singing the last line, “Till you find your dream,” repeatedly, and the five singers joined forces again for the funky encore, “So Long, Farewell.”

Was this show a quirky novelty, or a big statement? You could argue either way.

At the very least, though, it made for a lively and entertaining evening. And I think it’s safe to say that even those who regularly attend shows at the TD James Moody Jazz Festival — which took place for the 12th time this year — have never experienced anything like it before.

For more on “The Sound of (Black) Music,” visit electricroot.co/sound-of-black-music-tour.

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