Darryl Taylor How Sweet The Sound – A Charm of Spirituals: A review

By  | April 12, 2011 | 4 Comments | Filed under: Recordings, Reviews

I love hearing erudite, classically trained singers extend their technique in Negro Spirituals. The  1990 concert of  Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman singing spirituals with James Levine was one of my earliest inspirations, fascinating to me as a teen-aged chorister.  As a fifteen year-old, I realized that this music was powerful, exciting, and infectiously tuneful, and that a singer like Jessye Norman – who seemed so regal, pompous, and affected – became animated and took big risks that felt spontaneous and competitive.  Anyone who watched that concert on television or who listened to the subsequent recording must remember that song “You can tell the world” in which La Norman reached for an ornament in alt, cracked audibly, and recovered by singing the next phrase entirely in chest voice. It illustrated everything you needed to know about this woman: She had a questionable technique, she was fearless, and she carried herself with dignity in the face of  adversity. The final phrase of that song included a long held cadenza including the note she had flubbed a minute before. The audience erupted with applause.

The swinging, hand-clapping rhythms, the blue notes and the potential for extremes-of-range cadenzas make the spiritual more crowd-pleasing than some of that awful “cross-over” stuff that Opera Singers sometimes indulge in, and often more exciting than an opera-aria-in-concert.  This is repertoire that I so badly wanted to sing myself, but I knew I would sound ridiculous if I tried – as ridiculous as Kathleen Battle singing Superwoman with Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah.

The juxtaposition of a highly skilled, uniquely timbred countertenor with the essentially folk song repertoire of the Negro Spiritual is both the joy and occasionally flawed premise of Darryl Taylor’s album How Sweet the Sound – A Charm of Spirituals.  Would  a countertenor dip into his modal technique the way a singer like Jessye Norman gratuitously reaches into chest voice in these songs?  Would a countertenor be able to grab for operatic high notes the way Barbara Hendricks or Kathleen Battle do so thrillingly?   Let it be noted that he is not the first African American countertenor to attempt this repertoire.  Derek Lee Ragin, one half of the Franken-stimme that was used to suggest the voice of Farinelli in the French film about the famous castrato, also made a record of spirituals in the late 90’s with the late arranger/conductor/pianist Moses Hoagan and his choir.

Mr. Taylor’s new release distinguishes itself from the pack by being a solo effort comprised entirely of through-composed arrangements of these songs with only piano accompaniment, describing the program as American Art Songs.

This concept, Spiritual as Artsong, gives Mr. Taylor less freedom and spontaneity than one expects in this music, and often takes the focus away from the vocal performance. Instead, the listener is asked to consider these harmonizations, these arrangements – commandingly played by pianist Brent McMunn – as equal to the melody.  I had already considered these songs to be part of the American concert repertoire as is. Maybe some audiences are more comfortable when the songs are sanitized in this way, or maybe thoughtful arrangements are in fact necessary for this genre to be accesible to non-black singers.  I personally love an album like Barbara Hendricks’ 1983 Negro Spirituals which pairs a young singer in full command of her instrument with an intelligent pianist who is equally creative at building organic climaxes and ornamenting each new verse.

Darryl Taylor’s singing is masterful on this record. He demonstrates long, legato lines, unbelievable breath control, surprising high notes plucked out of the sky, and the occasional bluesy riff that makes you wish he had abandoned the conceit of the program.

Taylor sings Lament (This May Be My Las’ Time) arr. Morris
Listen to Lament (This May Be My Las' Time)

The track cumbersomely named “Lament (This May Be My Las’ Time)” from Robert Morris’ Lyric Suite, is the one that puts Mr Taylor in the company of the great singers listed above.  Morris’ arrangement sits in a flattering tessitura for Taylor, is spacious, and allows him those chances to bend the melody – touching the quarter-tones, caressing the language.

Taylor sings Deep River arr. Burleigh
Listen to Deep RIver

Harry Burleigh’s arrangement of “Deep River” is another ideal vehicle for Taylor’s artistry.  It is hard to tell where the bottom of his voice is, so skillfully does he navigate the low register change.  You may hear hints of his past career as a tenor, an idea that is wiped away when he launches into the climactic high E5 – operatic contralto in flight. And in Moses Hogan’s cryptic arrangement of “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word,” Taylor invokes Marion Anderson with a bone chilling dip to low Eb3.

Taylor sings He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word arr. Hogan
Listen to He Never Said a Mumblin' Word

Taylor’s extra-long phrase, third-lung breath control is in full display throughout this recording.  It is an effect put to particular good use in the favorites “Amazing Grace” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”  Some of these phrases are technically astonishing and make me curious about Taylor’s ability to employ this skill in a Handelian lament.

Taylor sings Git  on Board –Humoresque arr. Kerr
Listen to Git  on Board –Humoresque

Some of the arrangements which confine the singer are the up-tempo “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel”  (Margaret Bonds) and “Git  on Board – Humoresque” (Thomas H. Kerr, Jr.).  Tracks in this vein once again put the spotlight on the arrangement.  Perhaps it takes a more seasoned, or simply a more egotistical performer to overcome the busy accompaniment.

Fans of Darryl Taylor will definitely want to own this recording.  Singers planning concerts or recitals may also want this recording as an intelligent catalogue of arrangers for this important repertoire.  The remaining audience for “How Sweet The Sound” will be the intersection of those who love the countertenor voice and those who relish the spiritual –  surely to be found browsing this website.

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Described as "superbly styish" by the Chicago Tribune, tenor Oliver Camacho specializes in baroque repertoire, melodie, and the lieder of Schubert and Schumann. Based in Chicago, Mr. Camacho is the founder and artistic director of The Opera Company and the co-host of the acclaimed OperaNow Podcast.


  • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

    Hi Bill,
    I would love to learn more about the traditional approach to the Spiritual that you mentioned. Is there a website that has gathered some of the recordings that you mentioned curating?

    It didn’t occur to me that Oliver was being disrespectful to the Spiritual tradition by providing the context that he did. Listening to the clips here (and I just ordered the disc from Amazon!), it sounds to me like Taylor is directly in the tradition of Norman, Hendricks, and Ragin with this recording. He sounds to me like a classically trained singer singing spirituals, as if he is filtering the tradition through his own experience as a classical singer. Although, I don’t know a great deal about the history, there is an elegance and craft to his singing that I imagine wasn’t present in the voices of the originators?

    I personally like Oliver’s tone. He is a bit snarky, but he clearly loves and knows singers!

    • http://www.billdoggettproductions.com Bill Doggett

      Ian: Oliver’s tone is indeed “snarky” and came across to me–and perhaps others– as irreverent in a ‘so what if I’…”South Park/Simpson’s” kind of way. This may simply be a generational issue. Yes, he clearly loves singers and the art they bring to it

      Professionally,as a reviewer, he might have considered indicating in his writing a knowledge of the legacy of great historical performers e.g. Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson,William Warfield, Marian Anderson and Dorothy Maynor as starting points. I got the very clear impression he really didnt understand the full history of the transfiguration of the Negro Spiritual from Slave Songs to The Concert Stage and Opera House…or the important global ambassadorial concertizing of The Negro Spiritual by The Fisk Jubilee Singers 1880s-1914 forward to both Roland Hayes’s 1920s introduction of Spirituals as concert art songs in Paris or Paul Robeson and Lawrence Brown’s landmark early 1930s Carnegie Hall showcase.
      Where in his review do I get a sense of an understanding of Marian Anderson or Dorothy Maynor’s legacy of the Negro Spiritual as concert stage art song.

      Perhaps being African American, a performing arts archivist and historian, my perspective is different and clearly more deferential. After all,my Philadelphia native parents co presented Roland Hayes in 1951 in Pasadena,California.

      To learn more about Negro Spirituals and African American singers in Classical Music, may I highly recommend Randye Jones superlative resource website, AfroCentric Voices: http://www.afrovoices.com/chronology.html

      This is an excellent deeply researched and richly detailed website for anyone interested in the legacy of Negro Spirituals, the singers who championed them and the new generation of great singers like Darryl Taylor, who bring that legacy and tradition forward into our times.

  • http://www.billdoggettproductions.com Bill Doggett

    Mr Camacho:Thank you for your spirited interest in reviewing my friend Darryl Taylor’s important new cd.

    Darryl has broken important new ground and has provided a new template for future showcases of Negro Spirituals.

    As a founding Board member of Los Angeles Opera’s African Americans division of LA Opera League during the 1990s and as an educator and Exhibitions Curator specialized in rare artifacts and recordings of The Negro Spiritual, I am disappointed in a direct and indirect undertone of flippancy of many of your ‘side comments’. These personal comments from the outset tarnish the larger meaning of Darryl’s special project.

    Do not get me wrong: the importance of having the cd prominently reviewed stands alone.

    What concerns me is an irreverent tone about the value/history of the Negro Spiritual on the American concert stage and opinionated quips about the capabilities of one singer or arranger over another. This kind of writing is more appropriate for a Blog than an important review in a professional on line journal such as this one.

    As I am certain Darryl appreciates, I do as well that by the 4th/5th paragraph, you got around to praising his singing and the vision for this special showcase and packaging of the time honored legacy of The Negro Spiritual.

    I hope my comments help you to better edit your reviews in the future.

  • Jean E. Snyder, Ph.D.

    Thanks for posting this review. Darryl Taylor was a wonderful tenor, and now his transition to counter-tenor gives him new repertoire worlds to conquer. We are all enriched by his artistry!