Bassist/composer Gregg August could not have known at what an auspicious moment he would release Dialogues on Race, a double-disc, large-ensemble statement that he originally premiered in 2009. He even writes in the liner notes of his reluctance as a white man to publicly meditate on Emmett Till (one of the album’s central concerns). Lo and behold, the album emerges in the wake of America’s public reckoning with race relations.
Soloists are an important element of Dialogues on Race—especially bass clarinetist Ken Thomson and August himself. So is contrapuntal improvisation, which features on seven of the album’s 12 tracks. Ultimately, though, this is a writerly piece, and the most moving solo is August’s thematic arco on the disc-one closer “Your Only Child (Second Statement).” As such, it’s a complex, beautiful, and often haunting work inspired by poems about racial tension (by authors of multiple races).
Sometimes the poems themselves appear, with vocals by Wayne Smith (“Letter to America”), Frank Lacy and Shelley Washington (the first and third statements, respectively, of “Your Only Child”), and Forest VanDyke, whose gorgeous interpretation of Carolyn Kizer’s “I Sang in the Sun” is one of the album’s highlights. The haunting aspect reaches its peak with “Mother Mamie’s Reflections,” a chilling collective improvisation (by August, Thomson, and tubaist Marcus Rojas) set against the voice of Emmett Till’s mother as she describes what she saw when she opened her son’s casket.
For all its somber tones, though, Dialogues on Race also swings with conviction. “Sweet Words on Race” offers a syncopated call-and-response between conguero Mauricio Herrera and the brasses and winds that is so intense, it hurts. Ditto “The Bird Leaps,” a Maya Angelou-inspired movement that offers the best of Ellingtonian, Monkish, and Mingusian grooves in one package. Dialogues on Race is August’s finest work.