Erykah Badu, Serious Composer?

06/10/2013 12:15 PM |

Last weekend, the New York Philharmonic performed a joint concert with the Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center, bringing Wynton Marsalis and his latest symphony, a history of jazz in six movements, into the concert hall. But compared to last night’s Brooklyn Philharmonic concert, that was as adventurous programming as pairing Mozart with Haydn. Our hometown orchestra invited hip-hop and R&B artists into BAM’s opera house, including Erykah Badu, who delivered an incredible song-cycle adaptation of her political 2007 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War).

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The evening began with Randall Woolf’s Blues for Black Hoodies, a mostly dreamy and sad work for strings, drumset and DJ overlaid with spoken word by Wordisbon, who came on stage in torn jeans, a leather jacket, a black hoodie, and dark sunglasses. He cut a marked visible contrast to the black-suited conductor, Brooklyn Philharmonic artist director Alan Pierson. (It wasn’t just aesthetic; Pierson got big laughs from the audience later when he referred to a rapper named “Bustin’ Rhymes.”) But the recently rejuvenated philharmonic is built upon such unlikely juxtapositions, taking popular music from the borough’s different communities and reconfiguring it in a concert-hall context.

Last season, they brought Russian cartoon music to Brighton Beach; music that traced local history to Boerum Hill; and some that charted Bed-Stuy’s musical legacy, from Lena Horne to Mos Def (who performed as last year’s artist-in-residence). The idea was to do something similar this year, but rights troubles and funding troubles forced the orchestra to cut back to one concert, the one with Erykah Badu, this year’s artist-in-residence, moved from outdoors in Bed-Stuy to indoors at BAM. (Tickets sold out so quickly they added another show, which Badu did as a benefit for the Brooklyn Phil.)

After the Woolf, Tumblin’ Diece did a crowd-hyping DJ set with live drums and hot improv trumpet by the philharmonic’s Wayne Dumaine. But the first half came off mostly as perfunctory throat-clearing compared to what followed: the post-intermission Badu. Composer Ted Hearne, who like Badu lives in Fort Greene, arranged six of her songs from the album for orchestra, rhythm section, and DJ, mixing in his own interludes and bookends partially inspired by the album, adding samples of Badu from The Black Power Mix Tapes and New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander. The concert was called You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance.

Badu came out, after Hearne’s aggressively scored overture, sipping from a blue mug, hidden inside a buttoned-up trenchcoat, a top hat on her head. She showed a knack for both showmanship and musicianship, singing sultry, growling, taking tuning forks from her pockets, sexily sliding down the microphone stand. At one point, she played the theremin while a priest in white robes chanted in ancient Egyptian.

She was strong, impassioned and emotional but always self-possessed, performing to a rapt and adoring crowd. If the weekend proved a coup for Badu, though, it was also a real triumph for Hearne, whose compositions and arrangements gave largeness and depth to what on record can sometimes sound thin (like “The Healer”); they could be jazzy, bordering on the Stravinskian. Taken all together, it was a masterpiece of performance—a singer, orchestra, and arranger not only at their bests but also perfectly fused. I hope someone was recording it, because for such a terrific concert to simply disappear after its two performances would be tragic. At the very least, perhaps it could be the start of a long-lasting collaboration…

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