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.
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.
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’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.
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.