Monday, July 26, 2010

Jessye Norman: Roots - Album of the Year!

In her new two disc album, Jessye Norman has given us an a gift that is as sure to infuriate as many as it delights. To my mind, this is exactly as it should be. The live album (recorded before an audience at the Berlin Symphonie) is a musical journey, in its way a theatrical work presenting Norman's life as a proud, African American woman of song.

It opens with a rhythmic overture of African drums serving as a sort of "call to order" which doesn't so much end as it does flow into her first number, an a capella rendition of His eye is on the sparrow. Slowly an instrument, a drone, is heard as we move into the spiritual I want two wings as the instruments progress with the singer directly, marvelously, into I couldn't hear nobody pray with the singer and her musicians increasing in intensity through this steady stream of sound. The effect not unlike that of walking down the darkest of halls or paths, lost, blindly, eyes adjusting slowly to the darkness, moving toward a single shaft of light, distant, faint, that, with each step increases in warmth and brilliance. It is a tremendous.

Norman uses her instrument as the best jazz or classical musicians do, with a sound that is usually immediately identifiable, but also willing to do everything and anything within its means to achieve an artistic purpose. Like the great Betty Carter, she is not beyond bending melodies and pitch, lightening the voice to a thin, almost childlike sound, then suddenly opening up and bathing the room in a lush warmth which you never want to end. Some, particularly strictly classical audiences, found this disturbing, and early reviews denounced the album as "painful," "disgusting," and "shameless." Everyone of those critics may be right in not liking what she's done here, but all of them are dead wrong and have failed to understand what this remarkable artist has done here.

The first song to take us there is Duke Ellington's Heaven, where Norman, begins treating it as a jazz standard, playing with the piano, swooping up and down and coloring the notes and text generously with liberties. But, about midway through, through scatting, nonsense syllables, trilled "rs" and drum-like sounds becomes not only the singer, but a player in her own band. The effect brings a terrific sense of fun with Norman covering several octaves both easily and breezily. Only in the bizarre world of music can this be followed - almost seamlessly, by a reprise of Bernstein's Somewhere from West Side Story. Norman's is about as inauthentic a version to Broadway as is possible to imagine, but she wears it earnestly and this little version does exactly what she expected it would do - have the audience hoopin' and hollerin' as she rolls, plows, then busts into My Baby Just Cares for Me." It's almost too much to take in, and I looked in vain for a place to take a breath before coming to the realization: I didn't even want to.

Norman is unrecognizable in a number of the pieces (including the aforementioned "My baby...") but every syllable is uttered with care, precision, just as every note is a wild, swinging celebration of a life's joy, as she calls out her player's names before a solo riff in classic, great jazz lady style.

While Lena Horne's version of Stormy Weather has always been my touchstone for that particular song, Norman takes a new approach, a jazz-infused one, and at some points almost introduces just a hint of Billy Holiday. It's a slower, more sensuous take than anyone is probably used to, but, with her operatic inclinations and unusual instincts infuses the song with a weight that feels natural as it builds towards the final reprise. Thrilling is not an understatement.

Moving on, what this lady does with Weill's Mack the Knife is nothing but sheer brilliance. Norman almost returns the piece to the opera house, giving the opening narrative auf Deutsch, against the small tattoo of a snare drum as she turns the bloody, violent text into a chilling narrative of devilish delight. Each verse grows in intensity, her voice tinged with a bit of violence until the audience erupts in extended cheers as the song is still wrapping up. Oh, Jessye!

It's almost impossible to review this without wanting to comment on every single number (as I've done up until now). Suffice it to say, what Norman does with nearly every song, is claim it as her own. She turns whatever you may have known or felt about a song completely on its ear. Even something as innocuous as All the pretty horses becomes in her hands, something else altogether - a haunting dreamscape with enough colors to convince this listener he has synesthesia.

Then, there's the throaty brutality of God's Gonna Cut You Down which closes the first half, with a dark rawness that gives Johnny Cash a run for his money. When she ends the song it is with a final pronouncement announcing death and it is blood chilling. BUT, Miss Norman isn't done yet, oh, no! She directs, or more appropriately, admonishes her band to "Take me off" as, mic still in hand, she walks off singing "Go tell . . . go tell that back biter, Good God a'mighty's gonna cut you down!" The audience cannot contain itself again and goes absolutely wild, erupting into rhythmic applause and cheering the ovation fierce and almost unending.

Norman opens the second half with Les Chemins de L'amour in a throaty baritone, that under different circumstances might be deemed a bit indulgent, but here . . . it works. There are countless brilliant touches that abound throughout the remainder of the show, such as La Marseillaise morphing into The Star Spangled Banner which serves as the introduction to J'ai Deux Amours.

Jessye closes out her musical journey with Ellington, Bizet, Monk and more before finally ending this breathless journey with When the Saints Go Marching In introduced by a bluesy, twang that propels both the audience and Jessye into a fiesty mood that finishes the concert in as bawdy, loud and rip roarin' a manner that probably hasn't been heard in a house since Judy sang one night at Carnegie Hall.

It is nearly beyond comprehension (but only "nearly) that this is the same woman who for years has transfixed me as Cassandre, terrified me as Judith, thrilled me as Ariadne, made my heart soar with Sieglindes and it only makes this crazy cake all the tastier.

This is as joyous a celebration of a singer as I have ever experienced and I only hope the album sells well and shows those who might not already know, what a force of nature, what an artist and remarkable human being is this Jessye Norman. Few artists I can think of now or of the past, would, after a legendary opera and concert career has ended in classical music, so painstakingly and intricately craft a show of this immediacy and complexity. Now take the show on the road, girl!

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