LANGSTON HUGHES: THE DREAM KEEPER / AMRAM: Weary Blues.1 The Dream Keeper.1-8 Neighbor.1 Daybreak in Alabama.3,8 Sylvester’s Dying Bed.1 Border Line.2 Reverie on the Harlem River.1 In Time of Silver Rain.1-8 Bound No’th Blues.1 Democracy.3-5 Ma Lord.1 Railroad Avenue.6 Life is Fine1/ Eric Mingus, voice; 1David Amram, pn; 2Larry Simon, gt/el-gt/dir; 5Don Davis, a-sax/contra-bs-cl; 3Catherine Sikora, sop-sax; 4Cynthia Chatis, Native Am fl/fl; 6Scip Gallant, Hammond org; 7Chris Stambaugh, bs; 8Mike Barron, dm; 8Shawn Russell, Frank Laurino, perc / Mode Records MOD-CD-A17
In the late 1950s, poet Langston Hughes, the most famous and celebrated survivor of the “Harlem Renaissance” of the late 1920s, made a wonderful album reciting his poems over the music of a pickup band led by trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen on one side and Charles Mingus’ Jazz Workshop on the other. That album, Weary Blues, has been more or less kept in print ever since and is rightly considered a classic.
This album is a bit different, however. Rather than have Hughes read his poetry over pre-existing jazz compositions, Mingus’ son Eric narrates Hughes’ poems over music created specifically for each poem by legendary jazz and classical musician David Amram. Once known as a talented multi-instrumentalist, particularly for his French horn playing, the now-86-year-old Amram sticks to piano on this new release, but his music is as fresh and inventive as ever. Guitarist Larry Simon actually directs the ensemble.
I was also particularly impressed by Eric Mingus’ narration. Wonderful poet though he was, Langston Hughes read his own poetry in a fairly straightforward, sing-song voice. Mingus interprets each poem as if it were a dramatic vignette, which it is. This falls well in line with Amram’s musical concepts, many of which are accompanied only by piano, but those that are not use a varied and interestingly-scored group of musicians. Amram scores them not as a solid block of sound, playing together like a jazz band, but rather spreads the instruments out in such a way that they almost sound like a disparate group of street performers playing in a subway tunnel. Who knows? Perhaps that was what he had in mind.
Those unfamiliar with Hughes or his poetry may be a bit surprised by what they hear on this disc. Hughes’ poems were political only in the sense that he made wry comments on the black man’s place in society. He yearned for equality but didn’t run out in the streets shooting people down in order to get it. His weapons were a superb gift for metaphor, irony and simile. He described black life in America, alluded to their second-class status and told the world that he wanted equality before he died, but as a non-violent protestor in the mold of Mahatma Gandhi he wanted people to recognize African-Americans as a race equal but separate from white society. It was gratifying that he at least lived long enough (until 1967) to see it achieved through the marches and protests of Martin Luther King Jr.
I went down to the river
I sat down on the bank
I tried to think but couldn’t
So I jumped in and sank.
I came up once and hollered,
I came up twice and cried;
If that water hadn’t been so cold,
I might have sunk and died.
But it WAS cold in that water,
It was cold!
I took the elevator 16 floors above the ground
I thought about my baby,
Thought I would jump down.
I stood there and hollered;
I stood there and I cried.
If I hadn’t have been so high,
I would’ve jumped and died.
But it was HIGH up there,
It was high…
So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I’ll live on.
A perfect example of Hughes’ tongue-in-cheek irony, and the reason he was so much liked as a poet. He’d make you cry, but then make you laugh. And you understood the humor underlying his angst.
My only complaint is that the album is so short…only 35 minutes. But 35 quality minutes beats an hour and a quarter of tripe.
And boy, let me tell you, I’ve been listening to an awful lot of tripe lately!
So get it, and enjoy.
I guess I’ll live on, too.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley