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Christopher Parker & Kelley Hurt: No Tears Suite (Mahakala)

Review of the pianist and vocalist's full-length composition paying tribute to civil-rights heroes

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Cover of No Tears Suite
Cover of Christopher Parker & Kelley Hurt album No Tears Suite

The No Tears Suite is a sweeping tribute to the Little Rock Nine, young heroes of the civil rights movement, who integrated Little Rock Central High School in September 1957 despite the opposition of an angry mob that included then-Arkansas governor Orville Faubus. For pianist Christopher Parker and saxophonist Chad Fowler, who were educated in the North Little Rock school system, and vocalist Kelley Hurt, a Black woman raised in nearby Memphis, this history remains up close and personal. Guided by the memoir Warriors Don’t Cry by Little Rock Nine student Melba Pattillo Beals, the husband-wife team of Parker and Hurt composed the anthemic, lyrical suite and premiered it on the 60th anniversary of that landmark event with a sextet featuring Fowler and drummer Brian Blade. That premiere performance is captured here.

While the musicianship is top-notch, the composition is occasionally too earnest and well-mannered. The spoken-word chronology of what happened in Little Rock helps set the scene during the “Overture,” and it’s genuinely inspiring the first time you hear how each of the nine students went on to graduate from college as well as high school and lead highly productive lives in the 15-minute “Roll Call.” But both features become unavoidably repetitious on subsequent listens. And you’re left wanting more when Hurt, a fine singer, opts for dignity over passion during “Don’t Cry (Warrior’s Song).”

These flaws diminish as the piece progresses. The arrayed chaos of “Crisis” deftly addresses the hateful resistance that twice prevented the students from entering the school, and reminds us how adept Parker, Hurt, and Fowler can be in freer settings. And “Jubilate” is celebratory jazz-pop, with space for each of the three horns on the front line, a notable spongy solo from Blade, and some closing glissandi from Parker.

After the premiere, the elated musicians decided to keep adapting Parker and Hurt’s work. That led to a 2019 collaboration between the septet and the Arkansas Symphony, with orchestration by bassist Rufus Reid, which has its own strengths and weaknesses and is available on various streaming services. In any case, the desire to keep improving No Tears Suite provides a trenchant parallel reminder that the 20th-century triumphs in the struggle for civil rights likewise require updated supports and commitment.