A Tribute! Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center
It was 40 years ago that Bernice Johnson Reagon recruited three other female African-American singers to create Sweet Honey in the Rock. That foursome has long since expanded to a quintet (actually a sextet, since Shirley Childress Saxton, who provides sign-language interpretation of each song, is essential to the mix) and has seen 20 members come and go. Two of the original four members, Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson, are still onboard, currently teamed with Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel and Aisha Kahlil.
Across all those years and configurations, Sweet Honey had always performed a cappella. But in 2010 they broke with tradition and united with a male jazz trio (dubbed the Honey Men) comprising pianist Stacey Wade, bassist Parker McAllister and drummer Jovol Bell. The intent, dazzlingly realized throughout this 100-minute concert, captured over two nights at Jazz at Lincoln Center in April 2011, was to honor four artists whom the women recognize as major influences and heroes: Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.
The project required a significant widening of the Sweet Honey repertoire, and they embrace the new material with typical élan (though, given the group’s admirable outspokenness on social issues, they surprisingly sidestep Simone’s more politicized songs). Each singer is given at least one solo number, including a slinky “Love Me or Leave Me” from Maillard, a testifying “Trouble in Mind” from Robinson and a majestic medley of Lincoln tunes from Kahlil. But the greatest joy remains their intricate five-part harmonies, especially on a grand, Odetta-inspired Freedom Suite and, in a concert-concluding return to familiar turf, a towering blend of “N’diarabi” and “Africa Is Where My Heart Lies.”