VARIOUS ARTISTS / “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”
We’ve sort of been here before. On May 14, 2006 I posted eight versions of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” featuring “the world’s greatest gospel singer” Mahalia Jackson, jazz pianist Ray Bryant, a capella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock, legendary jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott, West Coast crooner Charles Brown, the jazz duo of saxophonist Archie Shepp and pianist Horace Parlan, and the Afro-German duo of Tok Tok Tok.
Well, here’s “Motherless Child” part two. "Motherless Child" is the quintessential black folk song; didn't no one person write it, we all write it, at various critical moments, we all contribute lyrics, the heavy weight of heart felt, big old hole in the heart despair. And it is only the power of our music that can roll away the damn-near-suicidal stone blocking our path, holding us back from our ascension.
Here are eight more versions, all different from before. And, of course, there’s still a bunch of good versions left. I believe we have a wider variety this time, plus we cover a longer time period. Additionally, I made it into a mixtape. Enjoy!
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Vocalist Dee Daniels working with the Metropole Orchestra offers us a semi-classical/jazz-inflected interpretation whose opening strikes me as almost soothing in its softness, sort of like a lullaby, like as if Dee was rocking a baby to sleep. Then the orchestra eases in, it could be a movie soundtrack, we see a sister walking a lonely road, a curved path. It’s a long shot. The wind is blowing, night time, she has on a cape or a flowing robe, the edges swirling around in the cold gusts. By the end of the song when the drummer’s rim shots start clicking and the swaying jazz rhythm takes hold, I’m deep into the song, deep into the muted anguish of Dee’s vocals… and then she’s gone around the bend.
The Harmonizing Four, one of those quintessential five-member, gospel quartets—“the gospel quartet” became a format more than a head count of the group’s members. In general the lead vocalist was a tenor, either of gravely intensity or soaring falsetto, but with Virginia’s Harmony Four, the lead was often sounded in basso, profoundly “basso.” Jimmy Jones was billed as the all time greatest bass singer and he certainly evidences is bona fides on this cut. He’s not only deep, he’s also deft, wields his voice with finesse. It’s truly beautiful.
The Harmonizing Four was led by Jospeh “Gospel Joe” Williams. A trivia note: group member Lonnie Smith was the father of jazz pianist Lonnie Liston Smith.
Jazz drummer Max Roach was so important to the music. More than any other drummer—check that, I should say, more than most other musicians period—Max featured vocalists with his music. And it wasn’t just a singer doing standards, Max was totally innovative in how he employed vocalists. This is from a gospel-jazz album he did, Lift Every Voice And Sing featuring the J. C. White Singers. Check the drone effect Max coaxes from the voices. The lead vocalists is either Dorothy White or Ruby McClure and the saxophone soloist is Billy Harper.
Vocalist and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe was big on the music scene in the forties and fifties. She was an electrifying performer. Her vocal work harkened back to the fundamentals of down home black church styles but her guitar work employed all the then recent developments including blues stylings. Unlike many of her contemporaries and many of the singers who followed in later years, Sister Tharpe stayed strong in gospel, successfully resisting the temptation to go secular in order to win a wider audience and more lucrative pay days.
Grand Union (Kate Vahl - vocals, Simon O’Grady - guitar/flute, Casper Sewell - bass, Leigh Rose - violin/guitar, and Gerry Wood - drums) is a British outfit that mixes traditional English folk music, jazz and American folk music. This is almost (but not quite) a smooth jazz version or a soft rock version. Fortunately there is just enough edge to their arrangement to keep it meaningful.
Pianist and vocalist Bar Scott here offers a duo accompanied by an acoustic bass. Her website does not offer any background info on her. I can only tell you what my ears tell me, this is someone who has done a lot of listening and come up with an effective variation on basic blues and jazz forms.
This cut features Los Angeles poet Kamau Daaood performing “Papa Lean Griot,”
Kamau’s homage to pianist/band leader Horace Tapscott. The background music is a swinging version of “Motherless Child.”
Listen to the wonderfully inventive phrases Daaood conjures in his praise poem, describing the sensitive and sacred of our black communal life.
At the end of the praise psalm, the vocalist, like a bishop rendering an exultant benediction, is Dwight Tribble. This cut is from Tribble’s tribute album, Horace
. I love the whole of this offering. Daaood’s dangerous recitation, how he invokes the spiritual essence of us, and then Tribble’s shout, with that descending Islamic-figure, takes it home.
But beyond all of the above, we close with Horace Tapscott’s big band recorded live at the Moers Festival in Germany. Horace Tapscott is the godfather of Los Angeles-based, modern jazz. He is beyond legendary and rates royalty status as band leader whose regional influence and musical authority was on the order of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and particularly Sun Ra.
This is music at the edge of consciousness—it starts off other wordly and just goes further on out from there. Moaning saxophones pray the invocation, a chorus of chanters summoning the spirits.
And then a tuba descends as if a message from heaven that everything’s going to be alright, blowing a hugely inspiring riff, over and over until Dwight Tribble, who was Tapscott’s vocal director, hovers in intoning the lyrics with big, healthy, plaintive tenor notes. When the whole band jumps into the fray, Dwight micro-shifts gears and whips the ensemble into a frenzy. The audience erupts into unrestrained applause, clapping and shouting. The tenor sax soloist takes over with a fierce blowing full of semi-hoarse wails sounding like he’s trying to virtually melt the metal of his horn with the hotness of his breath.
Next comes a hard solo from the softest of instruments, the acoustic bass. Here the strings are plucked as though they were a bow shooting the arrows of God smiting down evil. (Be sure to check the drummer up underneath, shadowing every twist and turn of the bass.) Towards the end of his solo, the bass player is strumming his instrument Gitano gypsy fashion before bowing out with a blues-bass walk.
The drummer gives a moment to catch out breath with four, or so, measures of time keeping and then that tuba riff returns up under Dwight Tribble who by now is totally possessed. At a couple of points I was afeared the man was going to hurt himself the way his voice was straining. The band gives a roar on the closing notes and the audience roars back at the denouement. Oh, what a joyful noise. Oh, what a stirring rendition of “Motherless Child.”
To paraphrase Obama, life may have thrown the first hard licks at us, but when we sing and make music like this, we throw the last lick! There is nothing more to be said.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
GET YOUR MOTHERLESS CHILD ON:
Dee Daniels - Wish Me Love
Harmonizing Four - I Shall Not Be Moved
Max Roach - Lift Every Voice
Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Gospel Train
Grand Union - Jane Jane
Bar Scott - Confession
Dwight Trible featuring Kamau Daaood - Horace
Horace Tapscott - Live at Moers
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