Langston Hughes is one of the great poets of the 20th century. His voice is as essential to the African American’s cry for freedom and justice as it is to the very democratic urge of all of humanity itself. It is this fact that makes him a poet for the African American as well as one for every human being.
This is because he is the author of poems of extraordinary lyric beauty quite beyond the matters of race and social justice. Indeed he comes from a long line of lyric poets including Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Above all his lineage includes the great Robert Johnson, whose bottleneck Mr. Hughes’ fluid lines mimic. He also shares a lyric sense of sardonicism of Miles Davis. Indeed some of his greatest poetry—of which “Jazzonia” is only one, but a wonderful example—of the same angularity that characterized the finest compositions of Thelonious Monk. Towards the end of his life Mr. Hughes’ poems exhibited a certain sense of the reflectiveness of spirit that seemed to invoke a certain Biblical imagery, although he seemed not to be conscious of that kind of soul-searching; his poetry was, after all, almost overshadowed by his acute sense of the body politic that was at cross purposes with the politics of capitalism.
So, above all, Langston Hughes was a troubadour-poet who sang for every suffering soul in the great Human diaspora. And it is this overriding aspect of his great artistry that makes him belong to Everyman, although he is primarily a poet—without being divisive—of African America. This is exactly what is captured by Ken Hatfield in his extraordinary homage to the great poet: For Langston. This is not the first time that Mr. Hughes has appeared on a record. Caedmon released an unabridged audio-book of the poet reciting his verse and Charles Mingus made the historic record, Weary Blues (Verve, 1958) that put Mr. Hughes poems to music; and there have been other records inspired by Mr. Hughes’ poetry. But there is none like Mr. Hatfield’s monumental homage, which not only takes Mr. Hughes’ poetry across musical topography that it has never traversed before, but Mr. Hatfield also fuses the music of greater America in one of the most contemporary tributes to an artist of another generation. This is in line with the fact that Mr. Hughes is everything that he is cracked up to be and is, indeed, a poet of all of the disenfranchised of America—and of the world too.
Guitarist Ken Hatfield is a musician who has imbued the multilingual nature of American music. Like many musicians who are not African American, he is inspired by the language and literature of the blues and jazz. And like many of these musicians he is extraordinarily talented. Mr. Hatfield’s superbly cadenced music is full of the nuances of the idioms blues and jazz: their elasticity, propensity for innovation and both simple and complex melodies. To these metaphorical musical forays, Mr. Hatfield brings the effortlessness of down-home folksiness of Americana as well as all of the sophistication of classical concepts of harmonization. His guitar in fact sometimes sounds as if it were propelled by the complexity of the strings of part of a piano. On this record, polyphony meets polyrhythms. The simplicity of Langston Hughes’ poetry collides with the crying gutsiness of polyrhythmic jazz and majestic creativity in musical composition nestles cheek by jowl with the desperate everyday-ness of life as Mr. Hughes captured it and of how Mr. Hatfield also does.
The poetry of Mr. Hughes has inspired many of the charts in this astonishing song cycle. On many of the songs Mr. Hatfield has woven several poems together into a brilliant patchwork quilt that becomes a new musical soundscape for Mr. Hughes’ poetry. There is such an empathy for Mr. Hughes’ work that the music seems to belong to his poetry. This is in a very different sense to Mingus’ work that had an over-riding sense of the blues in Langston Hughes’ lyricism and idiomatic turn of phrase. Mr. Hatfield reaches further into the contemporary relevance of Mr. Hughes’ poetry, making of it an all-American song cycle. This is a first for Mr. Hughes’ work and an accomplishment for Mr. Hatfield, who has read into this poetry all of the worldliness that Langston Hughes experienced—travelling as he did to Latin America, Africa and even as far as Asia.
The musical achievement of this record also owes much to the other musicians. As a lead voice, the soprano of Hilary Gardner is one of the most important reasons for this brilliantly rendered poetry and music. The purity of her voice and the exceptional diction and expression makes her one of the finest vocalists today. She brings a sense of loftiness to the music as she does sing with all the pain and bitter-sweet joy that the interpretation of Mr. Hughes’ poetry demands. Ms. Gardner is magnificent throughout. Bassist Hans Glawischnig is another reason for the success of this record. His ingenious interpretations of this music is revealed in his masterly playing—especially in his soloing con arco as well as his playing con arco in the ensemble passages. Mr. Glawischnig’s dazzling work is showcased on “Prayer,” “Convent/Silence” and elsewhere. He captures the mighty ache that is embedded in Mr. Hughes’ poetry like someone who has known this poetry all his life. This speaks volumes for his genius and the absolute versatility of his musicianship.
Mr. Hatfield deserves special credit for the compositions, and, above all else, his exquisite arrangements. Finding Jamie Baum and her alto flute to become the harmonic voice that his guitar plays off is a master stroke. The depth of Ms. Baum’s musical gravitas adds a remarkable quality to the beauty of this recording. The percussionists—drummer Jeff Hirshfield and Steve Kroon—play beautifully throughout, adding an immense range of colours and hues to the music. This addition of shade and also texture is the reason why the essential polyrhythmic content of Mr. Hughes’ work is wonderfully adhered to.
Tracks: Overture; Dream Boogie; Not What Was; Breath Of A Rose; I Don’t Believe In Titles; Lonely Nocturne; In Time Of Silver Rain; Prayer; Silent One; Poem To A Dead Soldier; Song Of The Revolution; Convent/Silence; Jazzonia; The Bells Toll Kindly.
Personnel: Ken Hatfield: guitar; Hilary Gardner: vocals; Jamie Baum: alto flute; Hans Glawischnig: bass; Jeff Hirshfield: drums; Steve Kroon: percussion.
Ken Hatfield on the Web: www.kenhatfield.com
Label: Arthur Circle Music
Release date: February 2013 | Reviewed by: Raul da Gama