Marcus Shelby Orchestra: Soul of the Movement (2011)
The subtitle of this record from the Marcus Shelby Orchestra is “Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Dr. King personifies the Civil Rights Movement for many of us, representing courage and a belief in a better nation. This new album consists primarily of the anthems from Dr. King’s era along with some inspiring original compositions which together demonstrate the soul of this movement, the soul of this man.
The record begins with “There Is a Balm in Gilead” followed by “Amen,” both traditional spirituals with moving vocals provided by Faye Carole, Kenny Washington, and Jeannine Anderson. “We Shall Overcome,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and “Take My Hand Precious Lord” are also covered here. The gospel parts of this album are very well done with some exceptional arrangements by Shelby and solid vocal work.
I am even more deeply moved by the originals. “Emmett Till (Bobo)” is an homage to the 14-year old African-American who was murdered in Mississippi after speaking to a white woman. The instrumental piece is dark and sparse featuring an emotional saxophone soloist with muted brass adding to the brooding atmosphere.
“Trouble on the Bus (Freedom Rides),” another original instrumental, is about Rosa Parks and other Freedom Riders of all races who challenged the segregation laws by riding buses and sitting where they chose. The piece begins with brass emulating traffic on a busy street. Then Shelby’s bass starts a solid groove followed soon by a flute-led bluesy melody. There’s a lot of dissonance behind the soloists, suggesting the violence, beatings, and imprisonment often faced by these non-violent protesters.
Shelby also offers a beautifully orchestrated version of “Fables of Faubus,” the famous composition by Charles Mingus. Orval Faubus was the governor of Arkansas who ordered the National Guard to stop nine black students from attending Little Rock High School. I hear the reeds offering up a cartoonish cadence for the governor while the brass demonstrate the strength of those courageous teenagers. The piece honors both the spirit of Mingus and the power of the Little Rock Nine.
The highlight of the record is the 11-minute piece “Birmingham (Project C).” Birmingham was the city where Dr. King was jailed for his involvement in a non-violent protest against segregation. Slow, jagged piano lines begin the piece, mingled with freeform percussion work which turns into a piano-driven melody punctuated by bluesy, angular horn lines. Odd time signatures and off-kilter rhythms give way to a melancholy trumpet solo and some pensive baritone saxophone work.
Marcus Shelby has presented us with a great record that expresses musically the heart and soul, the pain and heartbreak, the courage and strength of the Civil Rights Movement. 50 years later, Shelby reminds us that the people, the voices, the songs, and the cause still matter.
Here’s a label-produced video featuring clips from many of the songs on the record. It’s heavy on the gospel numbers, but also feature some stellar solos by saxophonists Gabe Eaton and Howard Wiley.