Guy Davis is one of those artists who makes perceptible the content—the allusions to, and quotations of, different kinds of music—of the blues. “Named after a form of expression that originated in West Africa and involves foot-stomping and patting of the arms, legs, chest and cheeks, juba—also known as hambone—was brought to the New World via the slave trade and was a precursor to the blues. In many ways, it was used as an attempt to dance away one’s sorrows.
Billy Porter has made a splash with the theatrical production Kinky Boots, about a black male who likes wearing dresses and designs shoes, Lola (the show was inspired by a film of the same name, Kinky Boots, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor). Billy Porter has referred to his Lola as a gender illusionist. There is anguish and play and rebellion in a man wearing the clothes of a woman: spiritual fulfillment and political transgression.
Dianne Reeves is a gracefully mature singer, with beauty of sound, intelligence, pride, range, and taste. The song selection on her recording Beautiful Life is good and its production quality pristine. It is a very pleasing collection. Dianne Reeves brings depth, individuality, and warmth to everything she sings. “Dreams” and “Waiting in Vain” are two unique, late twentieth-century popular music standards, the first rock (Stevie Nicks) and the second reggae (Bob Marley), and here presented as jazz ballads with elegance and sensitivity.
A quiet, tender description of nature, of quiet growth, is found in “Perfectly, Still This Solstice Morning,” one of the poems by Ted Kooser that has been set to music by Maria Schneider and sung by Dawn Upshaw on Winter Morning Walks: the collection of songs is the kind of music that can easily become a part of one’s life, for both its sound and its thoughts, as it captures existence, movement in nature and world, illness, and recovery.
Nick de Grunwald, the British television producer and driving force behind Mosaic of Disarray, deserves to be a big name in music. The thirteen songs are a well-balanced mix of darkness, poignancy, cheerfulness and folksiness. The songs range from the funky bleakness of “Channel D” through ballads and rock songs to the nightmarish unearthliness of “The Other”.
The Virginia-born music and style icon Pharrell Williams, once a partner with his childhood friend Chad Hugo in the producing team The Neptunes, made the solo album In My Mind (2006) and now Girl: Girl has a light, contemporary dance sound. Its attitude is open, flirtatious, and confident. The singer-songwriter’s persona is that of a smart urbanite.
The pianist and singer John Legend’s album Love in the Future is a return to the kind of confident sentimentality that once was the province of most popular music stars, but for years now love has been replaced by sexual aggression and contempt and social violence as focus in a lot of mainstream culture. Legend’s song collection is emotional, lush, and contemporary: it is betting that there is still an audience that wants to hear a young, confident and successful African-American male make such romantic declarations.
Of course, the banjo is an African instrument. Valerie June loves old-time music, folk music, the music of banjo and fiddle and violin, the kind of music that people make to fit into country lives, the kind of music that people in cities find a healthy, nurturing relief; and she has added something to that tradition. Valerie June has cited Alan Lomax’s collection of recorded folk songs as being part of her research.
Much of classical music has been founded on the sound of the human voice, in imitation of it, or with the voice at music’s center. Darryl Taylor’s album Fields of Wonder is a return to that elemental beauty. The tenor voice—soaring in a high range in its maturity—is the voice with which others seek to harmonize, and it is usually a lyric tenor or dramatic tenor (and, past and present, black male tenors include Lawrence Brownlee, Vinson Cole, Kenneth Gayle, Roland Hayes, Kenn Hicks, George Shirley, Noah Stewart, and Kenneth Tarver).