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Snarky Puppy: Lingus

The song “Lingus” by the group Snarky Puppy has been recorded by the group many times, but my favorite take is from their ninth album We Like it Here. Snarky Puppy is a very special musical group made up of some of the best jazz fusion instrumentalists in the world. As a group they have won multiple Grammy awards, but individual members have also won solo Grammy awards. To me, something special about Snarky Puppy is the fact that no matter how successful individual members of the group become, they still find a way to come together in the name of Snarky Puppy. Their love for one another and bond can be heard in their music and even seen in their performance. Their audience is often a small group in an intimate setting. Each audience member gets a pair of headphones and has the opportunity to be a fly on the wall during the recording session. Sometimes the audience even gets to be a part of the creative process. There is always so much going on in Snarky Puppy’s music, but they do an incredible job finding a way for the listener to know what to listen to. This particular recording of “Lingus” is my favorite because of the keyboard solo at the end. In each recording of “Lingus”, a different member of the band takes a stab at the solo. Though every recorded solo is excellent, Cory Henry (the keyboard player) made a huge impression on me for the We Like it Here version. Cory, who is one of the members that also has an incredibly successful solo career, redefines how the “Lingus” solo is imagined. Though there is a structure laid out for the listener by the bass and drums, Cory draws outside the lines of this structure to create something almost completely new. The listener is transported outside of the form then brought back into it for an earth-shattering groove. You can hear in Cory’s solo all of the styles he specializes in. Jazz, soul, gospel, and even some classical traditions creep into the solo in a style that can only be classified as fusion.

Richard Strauss: Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen

One of my favorite things to do is musical education outreach. I love that I can go into schools and help children learn about incredibly important lessons via music. I often bring in a special song the character of Harlequin in the opera Ariadne auf Naxos sings to the title character. The song has an incredible amount of wisdom, truth, musicality, and beauty in only a minute and 30 seconds. I begin the class with asking the kids to raise their hands if they like being happy. After, I ask them to raise their hands if they like being sad. You can imagine that the kids usually all raise their hands on “happy” and none do on “sad.” I ask them why they don’t like being sad, and most say “because it takes away from happiness.” We then start a discussion on how one (happiness or sadness) cannot exist without the other. Explaining the joy of going “through” something vs staying in it, the value of perseverance, and the true definition of hope and bravery are just some of the incredible lessons learned in my outreach performances. It all comes together in this masterful song inside of an aria by Richard Strauss.

Take 6: Come Unto Me

Growing up, I was fascinated with the Grammy winning a cappella group “Take 6”. A group of six young black men singing about the power of goodness and Love was an incredible thing for me to look up to. Take 6 was started by singer Claude McKnight and 5 of his classmates at Oakwood College. Oakwood is a religious school in Alabama that has a rich culture of music. 16-time Grammy nominee, Brian McKnight attended Oakwood and is the little brother of Claude McKnight. Oakwood has produced some of my favorite opera, soul, and jazz singers, so it is no surprise that all of the members of Take 6 attended this incredible institution. One of my favorite pieces from the Take 6 catalog is “Come Unto Me”. It is a biblical text from Mathew 11 verses 28-30 that is the words of Jesus telling his people that if they are tired from carrying their burdens, they should come to him and learn gentleness and humility to allow them rest. As a child I was obsessed with the close harmonies, and as I got older, I started to appreciate other elements such as word painting, and the words themselves.

Punch Brothers: Familiarity

The song “Familiarity” by the Punch Brothers spoke to me on a special level when I first heard it a few years ago. It sort of redefined what I expected from popular music. The fact that there are so many musical styles and is set up in a form you usually only hear in classical music, I was completely shocked to hear this on the radio. Trained musicians singing and playing original compositions! I thought that didn’t happen anymore. What a breath of fresh air for me. The Punch Brothers are a Grammy nominated American band consisting of Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, and Paul Kowert.

I think it can be difficult to decipher text in this song (and a lot of Punch Brothers’ songs). The musicality seems to overwhelm the function of text. However, hearing the lyircs read by the composer gave me a better idea of the piece as a whole. Composer, Chris Thile described a scenario where someone is hanging out with an old friend in a bar, and they haven’t connected face-to-face with each other in a while. A song starts to play on the radio they both know, and even if they might not like it, they’re familiar with it, and that brings them closer together. The song goes on to talk about love and companionship, but also everyday distractions that allow us to miss important moments of connection. What’s special to me about this piece is the use of syncopated rhythms and a combination of styles including bluegrass, classical chamber music, and American country music. This unique style of the Punch Brothers has been named “progressive classical music.”

Franz Liszt: Vallée d’Obermann

Lizst’s “Vallée d’Obermann” is my favorite piece of music ever written. I fell in love with it as a child, but resonated more with it as I got older and experienced the challenges of life. Before I knew anything about the piece, what I loved most about it, was that it didn’t seem like a form of escapism. It didn’t allow me to forget about life, in fact, it reminded me of life in a strange way. It sounded to me like wondering, worrying, and a search for something that may never come. Dissonances being as important as perfect harmony; one informing the other. Liszt’s composition made me feel understood at a time when I felt that there wasn’t anyone that could understand my struggle. As pessimistic as that may seem, it was my truth.

Later on in life, I started to read a novel by Étienne Pivert de Senancour entitled “Obermann”. I wondered if it was the same “Obermann” from the Liszt piece. So I did a little research and to my surprise it was! Liszt had modeled his piece after the story of Obermann, a man looking inside himself constantly wanting to overcome hopelessness in order to find a purpose. Unfortunately, he never finds it. Reading this novel shook me to my core. It was about the exact same feelings I had listening to Liszt’s interpretation well before I knew anything about the piece or the novel. As soon as I could, I found a recording of Horowitz playing “Vallée d’Obermann” and listened to it over and over for hours with tears flowing down my face. After my pity party, I had a moment of realization. “This is my purpose.” I said to myself. The fact that Liszt turned this man’s struggle into music that I would hear over a hundred years later and empathize with it, lets me know how powerful music is. I had no doubt in my mind after that moment that my purpose was music. Music helps us heal. Music helps us learn. And sometimes music teaches us that life isn’t always about finding something; searching for it is just as important.

William Bolcom: Ballad of the landlord

“Ballad of the landlord” is a poem by Langston Hughes. It basically is a dialogue between an African American tenant and a white landlord. It’s interesting to me that Langston doesn’t offer any opinions. He tell’s the story as it happens and the reader/ listener has no choice but to develop their own opinion. This poem was set to music by composer William Bolcom in 2002 as part of his cycle “Old Addresses”. Musically, Bolcom marries the worlds of classical singing with soul and even hip hop. This piece was given to me by American Song specialist Paul Sperry at the Manhattan School of Music. If you want to see a live performance of “Ballad of the landlord”, I will be singing this piece on my debut recital at Carnegie on October 9 at 8pm.

Ricky Ian Gordon: Luck

During my rehearsals with Ricky Ian Gordon for our concert on September 18, I noticed that in his home there was a framed poem on top of the door to his studio. I asked him about it, and he expressed to me that it meant a lot to him, and was one of the most significant settings of a poem that he’s written. The poem is “Luck” by Langston Hughes. It’s very short, but incredibly deep. Take a listen.

Luck

Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given,
To others
Only heaven.

Margaret Bonds: Minstrel Man

Right after I left Opera Theatre of St. Louis last summer, I went to West Palm Beach Florida. I was competing in the national rounds of a year long competition presented by NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) NANM is the oldest organization for the preservation of African American Music. Each year, there is a different instrument that is the focus of the competition. Knowing that it was the year for “voice” my teacher helped me put together a solid program. The singers were required to present an Aria, Lied, African American Art Song, and a Spiritual. Surprisingly, I had never even heard of an African American Art Song. I began to research and came across a composer by the name of Margaret Bonds. I instantly fell in love with her music and message. She had a very strong friendship with Langston Hughes and often would set his poems to music. I knew that whatever piece I chose, it would have to be a Langston Hughes setting by Bonds. My voice teacher sent me a song called “Minstrel Man” from her cycle “Three Dream Portraits” and that was it! I felt that the music was heartbreakingly beautiful and the poetry deepened my love for Hughes.

I competed with “Minstrel Man” amongst the other requirements, and ended up winning first place. Winning was something I was proud of, but I was more excited about my new relationship with this extraordinary piece of music and poetry. I went on to sing this piece in recital at the Heidelberger Früling Festival, Manhattan School of Music, and will sing it at Carnegie Hall during my recital debut on October 9 at 8pm.

It speaks to me because it describes the struggle of a person having to basically grin and bear the atrocities facing them. I resonate with the text in two different ways. I interpret it as a black man in America having to experience racism every day and not feeling able to do anything about it other than smile and try to forget. I also interpret it as a professional singer who, no matter what awfulness I go through in my day, has to stand in front of hundreds sometimes thousands of people and pretend like there’s nothing wrong. It’s a powerful piece and I’m sure it will touch you in some way. Take a listen.

Ricky Ian Gordon: When Sue wears Red

Last summer while I was a festival artist at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I received an assignment to participate in a special Ricky Ian Gordon presentation. Nine singers were to be featured in concert performing a variety of pieces by Gordon. I initially declined my participation because I felt I was too busy and didn’t want to risk being underprepared. After the director of artistic administration called me into his office and asked me again to participate, I humbly accepted. I wasn’t going to say “No” to the face of someone that had just given me the opportunity of a lifetime to be singing a principle role at a place like OTSL. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and it almost didn’t happen!

The piece I was given was “When Sue Wears Red” This piece was my introduction to both Ricky Ian Gordon and to Langston Hughes who wrote the text. To the readers that know the work of both of these men, you can understand how mind blown I was when I researched them for this project. I had heard of both artists but had never actually worked on anything of theirs. The first work session with Ricky, I was stunned at how generous, loving, caring, and passionate of an individual he was and how that rang throughout his music. I was so nervous singing for him but managed to get through the piece the first time without falling on my face. After I finished, we went straight to work. “It needs more sex” he said looking at me serious as a war general. He then went on to say “Sing it from your crotch.” I couldn’t help myself and started to laugh. “There you go! Let’s have some fun with this.” he stated. I no longer was nervous and was able to have fun, tons of actual fun, in the worlds of these very serious and profound artists.

Langston was in high school when he wrote this poem. Before his period of sexual ambiguity, Hughes had a huge crush on a girl in his class named Sue. Langston describes how he feels about a particular red dress she wears by saying “Come with a blast of trumpets, Jesus!” which was eloquently translated to me by Ricky as “Damn, Girl!” Langston’s youth and carefree attitude in this time in his life is set perfectly by Gordon. Take a listen! If you care to hear a live performance of it, I’ll be singing this piece along with others on a very special concert curated by Ricky Ian Gordon on September 18 at 7pm in Greenfield Hall of the Manhattan School of Music.

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