Bassist Marcus Shelby has carved out a substantial career as a leader after the dissolution of the group Black/Note
. For his sixth CD, Shelby presents his magnum opus, a two act musical opera based on the life of famed African-American slave turned suffragette, abolitionist, and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, who was also a well-known music lover. Tubman's celebrated emancipation sojourn from Maryland to Delaware is documented by Shelby's 15-piece jazz orchestra complemented by a four-voice choir and a load of soloists from Shelby's native California. New York City drummer Kenny Washington is included in the vocal group as soloist and team player. The story of Tubman's procession is well known. From oppression to liberation, Tubman led a group on a trek up the Eastern Seaboard with stopovers in emancipation houses along the way. Shelby has detailed and supplemented this trip with a great musical backdrop and expanded story line. Only the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of Wynton Marsalis Blood on the Fields
is a tone parallel. Perhaps Duke Ellington
's The Drum Is a Woman
comes close in terms of sheer dramatic effect. A "'Round Midnight" type prelude ballad starts the story, followed by a free up and down 6/8 bop "Ashanti Stomp," a classic blues ballad "I Will Not Stand Still," and a paean to Tubman's mother Rit from husband Ben. The four-voice modal chant and the spiritual prayer "Over Here Lord" provide inspiration before the late-night escape -- an interactive choral "North to Delaware" in stealth waltz time, setting the wheels in motion. The second act/CD depicts the journey with the very hip instrumentals "Stampede of Slaves" and "Freedom Trail" both with outstanding alto sax solos from Gabe Eaton. They represent the breakthrough with bright horn punctuations, African rhythms, and a spirited modern jazz emphasis. Remembering that this is the time of Civil War, a military march to blues during "54th Regiment (Will They Fight?) " challenges black allegiance to the Union cause, and "Go Down Moses" signifies the final push and arrival to a better life. Trumpeter Mike Olmos
is an outstanding ensemble player and soloist overall, vocalist Faye Carol
and Washington play their singing parts in heritage fashion, and the group as a whole perfectly exemplify the themes of struggle, disbelief, rancor, dogged determination, and eventual vindication, while knowing the work has only begun. This work is based on the story of Tubman as written by Kate Clifford Larson, and it so moved Shelby as to create this magnificent recording. More than a history lesson, extremely elaborate but not grandiose, or excessive, it is indeed an ever poignant lesson in life, and a powerful presentation that hopefully will not be restricted to Shelby's home region. It deserves its own DVD, or concert presentation somewhere near you.