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Irvin Mayfield: Strange Fruit

Rare indeed is the musician who can make two albums as disparate as Irvin Mayfield’s latest Los Hombres Calientes album with Bill Summers, Vol. 5: Carnival, and the premiere recording of Mayfield’s lynching chorale Strange Fruit. Almost unheard of is the musician who can make them both this good.

Carnival’s title lets you know what it has in store: No matter how complicated the rhythms Summers lays down, no matter how dizzyingly elaborate Mayfield’s trumpet solos, no matter what Afro-Latin-American tradition the two men are drawing on, they’re making party tracks. “Latin Tinge II” features blistering improvisation from Mayfield that locks into the Latin rhythm underneath, with frequent ensemble brass hits to help keep the trumpeter in line. “James Booker” and “George Porter” both pay sweat-breakin’ tribute to their namesake funkmeisters, while “Mardi Gras Bayou” has perhaps the hottest rhythm of all of them, beginning with a stutter and settling into an abbreviated-sounding loop that leaves plenty of space for some soulful singing and a wickedly twisting brass line.

The beats and the invention are so relentless that the chill-out tracks, especially “Carnival Lullaby” with its Mayfield-supplied Hammond organ cushioning the persistent sway, come as a welcome relief; indeed, a bit more relaxed music might have been appreciated for the home listeners without access to a fabulous party.

This is not a problem with Mayfield’s Strange Fruit, an opus commissioned by Dillard University and brilliantly performed by the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the Dillard University Choir under Mayfield’s direction. Wendell Pierce ably narrates the plot about a fictional lynching in his deep bass, allowing Mayfield to illustrate single moments of piercing emotion with felicitous writing for the orchestra, as on the lustrous blues “Opening Statements,” and haunting choral arrangements like “The Sacrifice.”

Mayfield pays close attention to his text. “Color Lines,” a song about the white woman who will eventually fall in love with a black man and set the catastrophe in motion, features the increasingly determined repetition of the words “I won’t see” over humid harmonies. The tune’s insistent rhythm leads naturally to the even more humid “Ballad of the Hot Long Night.” Most daring, though, is Mayfield’s decision to set the beating to a Latin rhythm rather than, say, something reminiscent of Darth Vader’s theme. The beat is infectious, but Mayfield leads it imperceptibly toward violence until the final chords come as both a resolution and a shock. The piece reminds you that the composer of Strange Fruit and Mayfield the Hombre Caliente are one and the same.

Originally Published