Comparison of Harriet Tubman to that other triumph-over-slavery jazz oratorio, Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, is inevitable. Straightahead bassist/composer/conductor Marcus Shelby shares Marsalis’ penchants for elaborate orchestrations and pastiche. Yet Shelby’s 84-minute double-disc is chock-a-block with catchy tunes (something Blood never managed), and accomplishes its predecessor’s grand ambition in half the time.
Based on Kate Clifford Larson’s biography, Harriet Tubman’s plot is loosely structured, yet has operatic powers thanks to Shelby’s seamless writing. “Prelude: Ben & Rit” is a pathos-laden (recurring) theme for Tubman’s parents; the second track, “Ashanti Stomp,” absorbs the prelude’s warmth and hurt into its own mix of grief and outrage—infecting, in turn, “I Will Not Stand Still.” This progression continues through the concluding recast of the hymn “Go Down, Moses,” an effective summary that also demonstrates Shelby’s superlative arranging.
The soloists aren’t insignificant in shaping the record; singer Faye Carol’s raw performance as Tubman is profound, and trumpeters Darren Johnston and Mike Olmos merit kudos for their respective fire and ice.
Shelby’s weakness is also Marsalis’—patent borrowings from Ellington and Mingus, and, in “Ben (Passin’ Time),” Marsalis himself. But Shelby tempers them with originality: “Over Here, Lord” evokes Ellington’s sacred concerts, but the glorious interlocking horns in its second part are all Shelby, as are stunning, full-fledged compositions like the strident “Life on the Chesapeake” and the meditation “54th Regiment (Will They Fight?).”
Harriet Tubman is a multilevel achievement, and a landmark—superior to Blood on the Fields. Where’s Shelby’s Pulitzer?