I was thrilled to come across a unique performance on NPR’s Twitter account, and I’ve been obsessed with it for the last few days. Opera singer Lawrence Brownlee’s collaboration with jazz pianist Jason Moran makes a very moving, almost improvisational-sounding piece of art. Listen to this!
I was a fan of Jason Moran already, whose album Artist in Residence is conveniently on my iPod. My favorite track off that CD is “Cradle Song,” a creative spin on an old classic. But Lawrence Brownlee’s work was new to me. A quick Spotify search revealed that he is quite active. His “Deep River” is beautiful.
But the collaboration between the two of them creates a fantastic new version of an old song. NPR’s title of its Field Recording, “Singing for Life in a Crypt in Harlem,” is the perfect title for the perfect acoustical setting for a weighty song and issue like this. About their chosen repertoire, the old spiritual “There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names,” Brownlee said, “Jason and I chose this song because we felt it accurately captures a growing sentiment that’s in society today. So many senseless deaths of young African-American men.” He also said they chose the crypt because they knew “that the ashes of the parishioners of this church are here in this crypt. You can feel the weight of death, you can feel the sting. It adequately captures the atmosphere, the somber mood that we are trying to capture with this song.”
Jason Moran’s slowly-building original accompaniment is nearly completely independent from Brownlee’s vocal part. Brownlee’s voice fills the eerie room, and Moran’s piano swells very slowly and beautifully at first, sparkling at the beginning and murmuring through the middle section. It is really a wonderful arrangement.
But the best part is the climax. Brownlee is singing, “Death! Death! Oh, death!” at the top of his lungs so passionately that spit is flying. At the same time, Moran is beating his accompaniment like a death knell, first in the bass and the treble, and then karate-chopping the treble notes with a chilling effect. The song peters out ominously soon afterwards.
The music, as amazingly done as it truly is, does not leave much hope, and neither do Brownlee’s words about the crypt. But just think. Brownlee is following in the tradition of the likes of Marian Anderson, who fought for the acceptance of African American opera singers, and Moran is following in the steps of the likes of Teddy Wilson, one of the first and most lyrical African American jazz pianists. Those artists and others like them established a musical culture in the U.S. that makes it so NPR feels honored to record these talented African American musicians. So much has already happened for good in this country in that way.
And another ray of hope – despite death and tragedy, those who are in Christ Jesus do not need to fear the “sting” of death anymore. Instead, we can sing with Sarah Vaughan, “There’s gonna be a great day.”