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Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra: Harriet Tubman

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.

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