Monday 5 June 2023

Because: in a slightly unlikely but completely seductive pairing, countertenor Reginald Mobley is joined by jazz pianist/composer Baptiste Trotignon

Because - spirituals, gospel, Florence Price, Harry Burleigh; Reginald Mobley, Baptiste Trotignon; Alpha Classics
Because - spirituals, gospel, Florence Price, Harry Burleigh; Reginald Mobley, Baptiste Trotignon; Alpha Classics

A profoundly lovely, imaginative and highly sympathetic take on spirituals and gospel

A disc of spirituals, gospel, and art song recorded by a counter-tenor and a jazz pianist/composer might seem a somewhat counter-intuitive project. But Because with Reginald Mobley (countertenor) and Baptiste Trotignon (piano) on Alpha Classics is a disc that I will treasure. It starts with the design, featuring striking photographs of Mobley by Richard Dumas.

The disc moves from spirituals to gospel, songs by Florence Price and Harry Burleigh, to a song by Trotignon and even a Motown number. Throughout them all, Mobley sings with a lovely warm, focused tone bringing a purity to the line which is complemented by Trotignon's jazz-based accompaniments. The result is a striking and engaging sound-world. This is late-night listening, which is how we first heard the disc.

Trotignon's solo, Why fits into this context finely, and says a lot of the pair's musical flexibility that Why flows easily into Florence Price's Because, setting Paul Laurence Dunbar, treating Price's music with discretion yet imagination. We also hear Price's Resignation and Sunset, both affectingly performed with Mobley and Trotignon bringing out how Price's art grows out of the earlier styles.

Spirituals became known because the Johnson brothers, John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) and James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) compiled and edited two volumes of spirituals. The Johnson brothers were part of the Harlem Renaissance and it is an intriguing piece of cross-fertilisation that the year that their first volume of spirituals was published, Josephine Baker sailed from New York to Paris to escape segregation and racial violence.

The singing of Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) came to the attention of Dvorak whilst he was director of the National Conservatory in New York. Burleigh's arrangements of spirituals became well known, but here we hear his own art song, Jean, a lovely waltz.

Reginald Mobley (Photo Richard Dumas)
Reginald Mobley (Photo Richard Dumas)

This is, to a certain extent, rather an unlikely disc but it works because the two artists are clearly in tune with each other and each gives the other space. Mobley does not attempt to take his countertenor voice down and dirty, instead he leaves plenty of space for Trotignon's jazz-riffs in the accompaniment, whilst Trotignon proves a finely sympathetic accompanist. These are not jazz and they are not emulations of European art song, instead the two take the songs to a place of their own.

The exception to this is, of course, I heard it through the grapevine in which both performers show they know how to get down and boogie. This is followed by the final number, a simple and moving account of Deep River.

Traditional - Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [3:10]
Traditional - Were You There? [3:48]
Traditional - I Got a Robe [2:35]
Baptiste Trotignon (born 1974) - Why [2:29]
Florence Price (1887-1953) - Because [1:58]
Traditional - Steal Away [3:40]
Traditional - Save Me Lord, Save Me [2:05]
Traditional - Bright Sparkles in the Churchyard [4:07]
Traditional - Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen [3:38]
Florence Price - Resignation [3:23]
Traditional - A Great Campmeetin' [2:53]
Florence Price - Sunset [2:16]
Traditional - My Lord, What a Morning [4:13]
Harry Burleigh (1866-1949) - Jean [3:11]
Traditional - By an’ by / There is a Balm in Gilead [4:56]
Norman Whitfield (1940-2008) & Barrett Strong (1941-2023) - I Heard It Through the Grapevine [3:08]
Traditional - Deep River [3:47]
All arrangements by Baptiste Trotignan except Steal Away (Patrick Dupre Quigley) and By An' By (Harry Burleigh)
Reginald Mobley (counter-tenor)
Baptiste Trotignan (piano)
Recorded October 2021, Salle Colonne, Paris

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