Those with long memories know that the precedent to this performance reaches far back. It was actually in 2002 that British trumpeter-composer Byron Wallen performed original music inspired by Langston Hughes, a key literary voice of the Harlem Renaissance.
Much has happened in Wallen’s career in the 15 years that have since elapsed, above all the development of the fine quartet Indigo as well as a hugely diverse range of work that has seen him score for dance and theatre. For this opening night of Certain Blacks, a festival dedicated to Harlem, Wallen expands the aforesaid group to a sextet, and the additional textural richness proves superbly effective.
Having said that, it’s a shame that there is an opening act, the samples-based Addictive TV, that bears very little connection to the festival theme and whose not uninteresting trans-continental groove would have better suited a standing, rather than seated, venue. Furthermore, this means that Wallen’s group does not take the stage until fairly late in the evening to play a shorter set, to the chagrin of some punters.
Nonetheless quality more than surpasses quantity. Wallen’s signature sound for the original quartet is an artful modal jazz that is decisively enhanced by Larry Bartley’s pummeling basslines and the subtle funk and reggae inflections of drummer Tom Skinner, whose snare work, in particular, is sharp and crisp. rather than hard and loud. Crucially, Tony Kofi’s baritone sax provides grainy harmonies to the main themes as well as stinging second basslines, while Tom Dunnett’s trombone and Rowland Sutherland’s flute bring further orchestral light and shade. As for Wallen, he is both soaring soloist and engaging narrator-MC, explaining why he chose to write music for Hughes texts, such as ‘Merry Go Round’ and ‘Ask Ya Mama’, both of which draw out the poet’s mischievous humour. He also clarifies that Hughes was a largely nomadic figure who believed in spending no more than six months in a single location. ‘The Journeyman’, with its subtle rhythmic shifts and harmonic shadow play, is a brilliant evocation of such restlessness.
In fact, there is occasionally a discreet echo of the famous Mulligan-Baker and Mulligan-Farmer piano-less groups, perhaps with the ‘Festive Minor’ vibe pushed in a more non-western direction at times. Later in the set a strong flavour of shakuhachi – something of great interest to both Wallen and Sutherland, who has studied with its masters in Japan – can be heard, and all of the players have the chance to solo at length, impressing with their surges of fire and finesse. Wallen, whose improvisations strike a fine balance between clarity of narrative and tight control of crescendo and diminuendo, is keen to make sure that the whole point of the evening – a celebration of Hughes as a human being as well as a poet – is well to the fore, and his decision to close proceedings with one of his most resonant and universal pieces, ‘A Dream Deferred’, strikes a notable chord with the audience. As he recites the timeless opening lines with their spare, simple, but wholly devastating, images of “a raisin in the sun” and “a sore that festers and runs” the mood is set for a shape-shifting arrangement that starts in folksy, melodic peace and bursts into atonality as the musicians holler “Explode!” like bombs and bullets in an urban riot.
Hughes knew of the beauty of certain blacks, and also their anger at the injustice of white America. Which is hardly an anachronism for the year of our lord 2017.