The Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 21), a quartet of Taos musicians are performing a fabulous showcase of music by and about African-Americans. Titled "Oh Freedom!," the concert …
The Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 21), a quartet of Taos musicians are performing a fabulous showcase of music by and about African-Americans.
Titled "Oh Freedom!," the concert features the versatile and stunning vocalist Salman Lee and gifted pianist-musicologist Claire Detels with bassist Sid Barrett and drummer Ricky Carlini. I'm an enthusiastic fan of the collaborations between Lee and Detels - if you haven't seen them before, prepare yourself for a musical and educational treat.
"I think it's extremely important to recognize the history of black people in American music," Lee said. "We wouldn't have rock 'n' roll without black people, we wouldn't have blues without black people, we wouldn't have jazz without black people. I think the soul of American music is really riding on the backs of African-American people. Even bluegrass … it's come to pass that people know now that black people brought the banjo from Africa to the United States, so we wouldn't even have bluegrass without black people. I think it's an important service not only to educate the masses about it, but also to celebrate it as well."
"Oh Freedom!" takes place Sunday (Jan. 20), 2 p.m., at the Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership, 20 ABC Mesa Road, off U.S. 64 west.
Detels, a retired musicology professor from the University of Arkansas, told me that the "Oh Freedom!" program includes spirituals that date back to at least the 1800s. Also on the program are a Nina Simone set, Duke Ellington tunes, a few of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" songs and some beloved jazz numbers.
As we talked about the program, Detels explained that Simone has come to people's attention in recent years because of the documentary film about her life, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" Detels said Simone was a talented classical pianist who could not find work or encouragement for her playing. She turned to writing and singing pop and jazz songs instead.
"Her voice is so incredibly riveting and rich that she was mainly known as a singer, but she always backed herself. And because her skills as a pianist were so great, she had so much imagination, she left this wonderful body of work," Detels said.
A lyric tenor, Lee was born in Taos and raised in Questa where he grew up singing Muslim chants. He later attended Boston University Tanglewood Institute and Westminster Choir College, New Jersey. For "Oh Freedom!," Lee will be singing on all of the songs except one piano solo. He likens preparing for the concert to preparing for a sports event.
"Singing is an athletic sport … In preparation for concerts like this not only do I practice the music that we're going to be doing, I also start singing a lot -- all day, every day -- basically endurance singing. And, I pay special attention to technique and any other sensations that I may feel happening in my body or in my throat or in my mouth. So, I sing a lot and I pay very close attention to my mechanism, to my body, to either engage my stomach more, or relax my throat more, or relax my shoulders more. Again, it's kind of like a sport, you've got to get warmed up to do it and you've got to exercise a lot before the event, and then after that is the cool-down period."
"Oh Freedom!," the spiritual, is one of Lee's favorites, and he will be singing it a cappella. Not everyone can pull this off, but Lee does so with remarkable feeling and musical talent.
"A lot of singers avoid a cappella if they can, because it's a lot of stress to maintain pitch and power and to carry the whole thing yourself," Detels said. "Sal's just a really powerful a cappella singer."
This will be the third time that Lee and Detels have partnered on a concert featuring African-American music. Detels says it is fun for her to work with Sal because he has "an extraordinary, beautiful and agile voice," a fine classical singer who can scat like Louis Armstrong.
"There are all kinds of things that he can do that you'd be reluctant to ask another singer to do," Detels said. "The breadth of different cultures that he's known and done music in I think is part of that. He uses the term 'I'm up for it,' or 'I'm game.' It makes rehearsals so much fun. And fun to imagine all the different things you can do together."
Lee is the host of a radio show on KNCE-FM 93.5. Detels is a founding member of PianoTaos and a fiber artist. They will be performing another concert for Black History Month at Unity of Taos church in late February. In addition, Detels and Lee are featured in a Schubertiad scheduled for early February. Lee also has plans to start up a cabaret and jazz band in the near future.
Tickets are $15, $10 for students, veterans and seniors; and free for ages 12 and younger.
For more information, visit taosmesabrewing.com.
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