Jazz and opera meet in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”

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“Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opened the Metropolitan Opera season last week, was a milestone: the company’s first work by a black composer. Music, by Terence Blanchard – a jazz trumpeter also known for his sheet music for the Spike Lee films – has received praise from both classical and jazz critics.

New York Times chief classical critic Anthony Tommasini described “a compositional voice dominated by richly chromatic and modal harmonic writing, embellished with irregular rhythms and tangy dissonance.” Jazz writer Nate Chinen wrote for NPR that “the smooth deployment of an extended jazz harmony, often in breathing and fleeting passages, marks the piece as modern – much like the work of a rhythm section nestled in the within the orchestra “.

The Times sent two more reviews to the second performance on Friday. Seth Colter Walls, based on the classical pulpit, and Giovanni Russonello, jazz specialist, both covered figures that cross with ease between concert halls and jazz clubs. But “Fire,” based on a 2014 memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, was their first night at the opera together, the spur of a long discussion.

SETH COOLING WALLS When we walked into the Met you described yourself as an opera neophyte. But as Duke Ellington said, good music is good music. And from our intermission conversations, I know we agree that it was a richly enjoyable job. How do you see him in Blanchard’s career?

GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO We knew on entering that Blanchard’s work is one of the largest and most imposing of all living jazz musicians. But I was struck by the number of aspects of his past production that seemed to come together in “Fire”. He is one of the few jazz composers who can charge a piece of rich harmony and real rhythmic pleasure, without feeling the need to tie things together or deliver a net gain. This style perfectly fueled the emotional ambivalence that gives this opera all its power.

WALLS I find this quality to be one of the weapons he offers to Spike Lee, who in his films tends to take pleasure in keeping an ambiguous tension alive. Blanchard can stitch tiny wings of hope to what otherwise appears to be a boulder of despair, and make you wonder if the whole assemblage is going to rise or fall.

RUSSONELLO From the opening scene of “Fire”, his diverse palette has been put at the service of narrative nuance. As Charles, the main character, hurtles down the freeway, holding a pistol and a fatal decision in his hands, a distant swing sensation escapes from the pit, propelled by bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Jeff Watts , known in jazz circles. a spot. He had the same sense of restlessness and anticipation as most of Blanchard’s small group jazz compositions. But a drape of violins also hung above it, moving in unison with baritone Will Liverman’s vocal lines – and reminiscent of some of that movie soundtrack.

WALLS That’s right, although Liverman also seemed a bit overwhelmed with some of that brass-and-percussion heavy opening writing. But soon after, the subtlety of his singing impressed me. The flintier aspects of his tone dominated during the first act, but faded as the night wore on. Even at the moment of the “buttercups” melody in the first act, I think we were both moved by the warmth of her voice.

RUSSONELLO And by the seriousness of his duet on this melody with the soprano Angel Blue, who embodies three characters: the half threatening Fate; too sympathetic loneliness; and Charles’s first girlfriend, Evelyn.

Which brings me to another successful element of “Fire” that reflects Blanchard’s roots in black musical tradition: the interaction between singers, in duets and in ensembles. Some of the most exciting moments weren’t solos but shared performances: When Charles’ mother Billie (Latonia Moore) sings her frustrated dreams at the start of the opera, the choir is behind her describing the harsh conditions of their city, giving it a texture of struggle And weight. The recurring taunt of Charles’s brothers – “Baby Charles, the youngest of five” – ​​becomes one of the opera’s most memorable refrains.

WALLS Following Billie on her job at the Meat Factory also turns into a good group act. And, most importantly, there are laugh lines in these scenes and others.

RUSSONELLO Group dance performances also stood out. The opening ballet sequence in Act II and the stage team number in Act III were probably the clearest examples of African diaspora tradition meeting the opera convention; in both moments, something triggered.

Blanchard has said that, like his first opera, “Champion” (2013), “Fire” is a “jazz opera”. But like any postmodernist, his understanding of what constitutes jazz is quite open. It can mean wildly extended harmony, bluesy inflections, odd cadences, unconventional instrumental pairings. With “Fire”, the plan was a classic Italian opera, but the furniture was these other elements. And the magnetic rhythm was a constant throughout.

WALLS The cast clearly liked slipping bluesy figurations between passages delivered with operatic vibrato.

RUSSONELLO Blanchard has such a knack for counterintuition: A consistent scene in a blues club begins with the orchestra playing simple blues in the background, but when the conductor character (Spinner, Charles’ scalawag father , played by Chauncey Packer) goes on stage, he sings something more opera and complex.

WALLS I loved this Blanchard faux-tête. (I also wanted to attend a full set of Spinner’s at this club.)

RUSSONELLO Spinner’s “Lord Love the Sinner” is a rapscallion hymn reminiscent of Sportin ‘Life’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in “Porgy and Bess”. Which begs the question of how “Fire” relates to other works in the American canon that fall between blues, jazz, and opera – including the works of William Grant Still (one of your favorite composers, Seth) or Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. (What mighty work could they have done with a Met commission?) Were there any major touchstones that jumped out when we took in “Fire”?

WALLS Blanchard sounds like Blanchard, which is the key. It comes from a folk tradition, like Still. He adds ringtones from his jazz career to the opera pit, as did Anthony Davis and Leroy Jenkins. But he is his own composer. Certain piano-led moments made me think of what Jelly Roll Morton, known for riffing on Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, would have done if he had been given the chance to let his New Orleans aesthetic shine on the floor. Met scene.

RUSSONELLO It should be noted that New Orleans – Blanchard’s hometown as well – has its own rich (albeit poorly forgotten) history of black opera. The first opera in the United States was staged there, and in the years between Reconstruction and Jim Crow, a number of operas featured color casts. Blanchard’s father, an amateur opera singer, was the heir to this tradition; this, in turn, became part of his son’s musical DNA.

WALLS This dreamy second act ballet music – perfect for the languid and suggestive dance it was associated with – was just a passage suggesting Blanchard’s love for the standard repertoire. Yet, we haven’t had anything like “Fire”. Leonard Bernstein delved into intergenerational trauma amidst a quintessentially American sound world in “A Quiet Place” – and while I love it, it’s also a notorious problem piece. And “Porgy and Bess” never really worked out as a theater night for me. (Fine tunes, however.)

My response to this big budget production was: Finally! Genuine classical music resources are used here, for a true exploration of American musical culture. I feel like there is a huge potential audience for this material – even for people who don’t see themselves as operators. (“Fire” will air simultaneously in theaters on October 23 as part of the Met’s Live in HD program.)

RUSSONELLO At the start of Act III, when Charles promises Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, the step routine elicited the longest and most vigorous applause of the night. He tapped into a dance tradition that has basically nothing to do with opera, but has been granted a different kind of power appearing at the Met.

WALLS One of the virtues of Kasi Lemmons’ libretto – and what Blanchard does with it – is that we get these sequences that are both black life rampart praise and criticism. Charles’s extended family, his church, and his fellowship each play a role in preventing him from telling the truth about being assaulted by his cousin. Drama and music never stop weaving pride and frustration, in a way that makes the opera’s conclusion and Charles’ self-acceptance truly important.


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