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Karpman: Ask Your Mama

CD Button Brugger, Brown, Black Thought, Freelon, T. Stinson, M. Owens, Medusa, Kwarteng, E. McGlover. Various instrumentalists, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Manahan. Avie AV 2346

Recordings Ask Your Mama Cover 1115

THE SPIRIT OF the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival flows through Langston Hughes’s epic poem, “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.” Appropriately, much of Hughes’s verse reads like extended riffs — it soars to rhythmic, consonant-heavy heights and extended, bluesy stanzas and images. Riots broke out at the festival that year when many patrons were denied access to the sold-out show. The great Jazz musicians of the day provided the perfect accompaniment to the seething anger of the Civil Rights movement that was just starting to gain momentum. Hughes’s poem captures and documents many of those feelings.

As with much poetry of that era, Hughes intended that “Ask Your Mama” be read out loud, and in this case, to the accompaniment of jazz. In his words, “[W]hen I gave the first reading of some segments of this poem, they were read to jazz. However, the poem may be read with or without music, of course. But for the benefit of those who might like to hear the music that I heard in my mind as I wrote 'Ask Your Mama,' along the margin of the book there are little musical notations.” Composer Laura Karpman took those musical notations and composed a sprawling, multimedia piece that debuted in 2009 at Carnegie Hall as part of the Honor Festival. Avie Records recently released a studio recording of the piece featuring soprano Janai Brugger, Questlove (the drummer of The Roots), and a host of other musicians and artists. It even incorporates recordings of Hughes himself reading excerpts of the poem.

The Carnegie Hall performance of the piece was well received by critics and audiences alike, prompting an ongoing tour of Ask Your Mama at concert halls around the country. Unfortunately, despite its best efforts, the urgency of the live experience is lost on the recording. Many moments that I assume would take flight given a staging, multimedia accompaniment, and live singing instead fall flat in a studio. This is not to diminish the magnitude and impact of the work. Karpman’s score, in adhering to the sprawling nature of Hughes’s poem and musical instructions, explores genres ranging from Afro-Carribean drum beats and R&B ballads to German lieder and jazz-club swing. Some of these fare better than others — my favorites include the lively, playful “Bird in Orbit” section, which sounds like it could have been lifted from a jam session at The Cotton Club, and the boozy, dreamlike strings of the eponymous “Ask Your Mama” movement. 

The recording makes excellent use of soprano Janai Brugger, whose floating soprano rings over the beats below in leitmotif descants, her voice sounding like a cross between Jessye Norman and Audra McDonald. Questlove can be heard at various points throughout the score, communicating either via drums or spoken word. But his virtuosic drum-solo at the beginning of the final movement, while impressive, seems out of place in the total composition of the work. The haunting gospel trio that ends the piece, on the other hand, offers a fitting, ephemeral end to this sweeping score. I applaud Karpman for allowing a quiet ending after a raucous, screaming climax in the “Jazztet Muted” section. The voices mingle nicely and leave you with a breathless, restless feeling.

With race relations dominating the news lately, and evocation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s de rigueur in its coverage, “Ask Your Mama” feels like a timely and important work — perhaps even more so than when it had its debut in 2009. Karpman’s effort to realize Hughes’s dream of a complete musicalization of the work — a dream deferred (forgive me) upon the death of Charles Mingus, with whom Hughes was collaborating — is a noble one. But much like the poem itself, it seems this is a work best experienced live. —Sam Perwin 

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