Piano Music by Still & Other Black Composers / Monica Gaylord

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The average birthdate of these eight composers is 1900, and the youngest of them, Oscar Peterson, is sixty-seven. So this is a nostalgic look at the music of black composers; there is no Anthony Davis here. William Grant Still's music has flowed into the cracks of our national musical heritage; I call a composer great who has created a single masterpiece, and Still's “A Black Pierrot“ from his Songs of Separation is as haunting a song as Schubert or Wolf ever composed. Three Visions are evocative miniature tone poems and the Seven Traceries are impressionist sound paintings.

Howard Swanson's The Cuckoo is a light, gay scherzo and trio, with the bird cuckooing away in one hand while the other flies all over the keyboard. Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) studied with Nadia Boulanger, earned degrees from Oberlin and Eastman, conducted choral societies, performed before presidents, and was awarded honorary doctorates from Harvard and Oberlin. His In the Bottoms depicts “black man's slave camps at the river's edge.“ The five pieces go from somber contemplation to a gay dance. Ulysses Kay's three Inventions are brief, formal pieces. John Wesley Work, Jr., studied at Columbia and Yale and became chairman of the music department at Fisk University. His Big Bunch of Roses starts with a Negro folk tune and develops in a colorful and relaxed way. Oscar Peterson's The Gentle Waltz is languorous and jazzy and sweet, Duke Ellington's Come Sunday is a soft, flowing hymn with a touch of the blues; both pieces are played in arrangements by jazz pianist Denny McErlain.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was another master composer; every work of his I have heard is at least worthy, often inspired. His suite of three waltzes—Allegro molto, Andante, Allegro assai— stands out even among all this lovely music. It has warmth, individuality, melodic charm, and a sturdy, upright dignity without a hint of pomposity that is his own special character. Monica Gaylord studied at Juilliard and Eastman and has played throughout the United States and Canada. She has a beautiful touch for these winning works, and when it comes to Coleridge-Taylor's heroic final coda, she peals forth bronze thunder; if this were a live recital, it would bring down the house. The pianist also writes the notes, in which she shows herself to be a knowledgeable historian and a fine writer. A fine recording rounds out the assets of this lovely disc.

-- James H. North, FANFARE [3/1993]


This winsome collection of 20th-century music was warmly welcomed by James H. North on its original release in 1992 (Fanfare 16:4), and I can only second his endorsement. He called it "nostalgic," and I guess he's right—although to my mind, that's not so much because of the age of the composers (as he pointed out, their "average birthdate" is 1900), but rather because they all aim (at least, in the works here) for a soft-edged accessibility that went increasingly out of fashion as the century wore on. Indeed, even Dett's musical evocation of slave camps abstains from brutality. Fortunately, Monica Gaylord has the subtlety of touch this predominantly gentle recital requires. While she's perfectly capable of ringing out the splashy final numbers of the Coleridge-Taylor and Dett sets, she's at her most impressive extracting the delicate impressionistic colors from Still's Traceries or coaxing out the rhythms of Ellington's meditative Come Sunday. Fine sound and erudite notes by the pianist only add to the attractions. A first-rate reissue.

-- Peter J. Rabinowitz, FANFARE [3/1999]

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: MUA737

  • UPC: 017685073724

  • Label: Music & Arts Program

  • Composer: Howard Swanson, John Wesley Jr., Oscar Peterson, R. Nathaniel Dett, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Ulysses S. Kay, William Grant Still, Duke Ellington

  • Performer: Monica Gaylord