Baldwin Set to Music at Arts & Ideas

Kapp Singer | June 18th, 2024

Baldwin Set to Music at Arts & Ideas

Beinecke Library  |  International Festival of Arts & Ideas  |  Jazz  |  Music  |  Year of Baldwin

IMG_8374The Kevin Harris Project performs at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The sounds of flutes, trumpets, trombones, and saxophones bounced off the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s gridded granite walls. Then the energetic solos and groovy vamps cut out, and a singular voice rose up.

“The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another—or others—always has been and always will be a recipe for murder,” it said, with heavy reverb, over a loudspeaker. The voice repeated the sentence, a quote from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, over and over. Only a subdued bassline wove in and out of the looping words, which became increasingly truncated and fragmented before the room fell into silence.

So concluded the second movement of Roots, Water, and Sunlight, performed by the Kevin Harris Project Monday night as part of the International Festival for Arts & Ideas. Harris, a jazz pianist, composer, and professor at Berklee College of Music, said that the work is a response to a question Baldwin poses in The Fire Next Time: “What will we do as human beings to preserve our own reality?”

IMG_8291Kevin Harris.

The piece, which ran just over an hour, interpreted this question across three movements. It was written and conducted by Harris and played by a wind octet—flute, alto and tenor sax, two trumpets, two trombones, and a french horn—with a drummer, pianist, and keyboardist. Baldwin’s voice was present throughout, his unrelenting prose periodically cutting through the music. 

“Composing something dedicated to someone so great and so profound, it was hard not to include James Baldwin’s words and have them threaded throughout the piece,” Harris said.

The first movement of the piece addressed, as Harris described, the fear that comes with one’s world being torn asunder—when familiar markers of daily life disappear. Dissonant swells across the band, punctuated by a powerful flute solo from Anabel Diaz, captured this feeling of change and defamiliarization.

Turning to the contemplative, a serene extended organ solo opened the second movement, played by Calvin Lemuel. Drummer Tyson Jackson picked up on the stripped down mood with long, rhythmic bursts of tambourine. If change had arrived in the first movement, this section begged questions about how that change would be embraced, even if doing so was scary. 

Throughout the movement, the audience was lulled into the instrumentation before passages from The Fire Next Time periodically re-emerged from the background.

As a conductor, Harris was almost as entertaining to watch as the musicians themselves. He moved around the stage, stepping off to the side when one of his players soloed. His facial expressions were animated as he mouthed the sounds of the music and reacted to particularly tasty solos. He often spoke audibly to the players, giving them both musical instructions and simply offering encouragement. After Jason Palmer played a particularly taxing trumpet line, Harris fanned him with the score.

The final movement was about “who we continue to evolve to be,” Harris said. It opened with a crisp and pensive French horn line that echoed throughout the library. A fluttering drone from the whole band then emerged, and the energy grew with a pair of saxophone and trumpet solos. A series of false endings titillated the audience before Harris turned around and started clapping, bringing the whole room to its feet. 

IMG_8361Jonathan Suazo on alto saxophone.

Harris’s influences stretch far and wide. “It’s as much Tchaikovsky as it is James Brown,” he said. “Nothing is off limits.”

He was particularly inspired by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartok, especially his compositions for octets. And, growing up in Kentucky, his early exposure to gospel music was front and center.

“At the very end when everyone stands up and claps like it’s church—that’s home,” Harris said.

The concert held particular weight in its coincidence with the birthday of writer and civil rights activist James Welden Johnson, for whom Beinecke’s collection of materials related to African American politics and culture is named. The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection contains an original copy of Johnson’s lyrics for “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—colloquially the Black National Anthem—as well James Baldwin’s letters, among other things.

“There are lots of materials related to liberation in this library,” said Beinecke’s Community Engagement Director Michael Morand before the performance. “All are welcome to do research in this place.” (To access materials held in the Beinecke, members of the public should register with the Yale library system.)

Morand first encountered Harris at Bill Lowe’s performance at the Beinecke for last year’s Arts & Ideas festival, where Harris played piano. Afterwards, Morand spoke with Harris about his own work and thought that the Baldwin theme related perfectly to Beinecke’s materials on the author as well as the Baldwin centennial

“I had high expectations,” Morand said after the performance. “But this was phenomenal.”