One of the perks of being artistic director at a major American performing arts venue? Putting oneself on the program.
But the grand Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration wasn’t some vanity project. The collaboration between pianist Jason Moran and his mezzo-soprano wife Alicia Hall Moran premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York two weeks before its April 14 performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington (where Jason Moran is artistic director for jazz). Nor was the KenCen program a small undertaking.
“Tonight you’re invited on a journey,” announced Kinshasa Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in introducing the performance. “It is a journey of black people to and through these American shores. And it is an epic story.”
The epic story—that of the Great Migration, the largest redistribution of population in world history—involved the five-piece Imani Winds ensemble, members of the Harlem Chamber Players string ensemble, Jason Moran’s longtime bassist Tarus Mateen, the operatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee, and Chicago gospel singer Pastor Smokie Norful in addition to the core couple. (And that’s just the musical participants, not accounting for the spoken-word interludes of either Conwill or the scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin.) As one might guess, that required embracing a large stylistic spectrum, beginning with classical. The Morans began with a duet recital of composer Florence Price’s setting for the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “Sympathy”; Jason then introduced Imani Winds to perform his surprisingly sprightly four-movement piece Cane.
Carnegie Hall, it seems, got only two of the movements of Cane; the Kennedy Center got all four, creating a determined, darkness-into-light narrative arc. (The piece celebrates Marie Thérèse Metoyer, a.k.a.Coincoin, the famous Louisiana slave-turned-businesswoman.) Moran himself participated in the final movement, with a lively, danceable jazz grooveàla Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue giving way to rumbling, fractured piano lines. But the pianist then pivoted sharply into a virtuoso performance of James P. Johnson’s famous stride piano piece, “Carolina Shout.” Griffin, in her narration, let us know that the tune was a product of the Great Migration: a Harlem stride piece that deliberately evoked the south. Moran, after finishing a performance that increased in both speed and sophistication, added to that history.
“When James P. Johnson wrote and recorded that song in 1921, it became the song that every piano player in Harlem had to learn,” he said. “They had to do battle on that song. When I get up to that other gate, I’m gonna be ready for ’em.”
After intermission, Alicia Hall Moran owned the stage. One of the most riveting, magnetic performers that this writer has ever encountered, she is as capable of sultry jazz and confessional soul as she is of operatic power. Her sinuous take on Ellington’s “Caravan” (accompanied only by Mateen) and a tremendous, emotional performance of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Feeling Good” established that range. “Summertime”—the aria from Porgy & Bess, in which Hall Moran toured nationally—reinforced her technical brilliance. She even showed off cabaret chops with a brassy performance of the World War I song “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”
The tenor, Brownlee, performed beautifully on “Purest Kind of Guy,” then joined with Hall Moran to trade verses on the traditional “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” She then gave the recessional, marching the musicians offstage to another old spiritual, “Two Wings.” As it happened, the performance with which she ended the night was perhaps her best, full of energy and passion as well as playfulness as she spurred her husband to imitate her with a high-reaching falsetto.
Even with that playfulness, though, Two Wings was full of a gravitas that could sometimes undercut itself. Part of the program’s point, at least if Griffin’s commentary was any indication, was that the northern cities were salvation for the black migrants, thrilling and inspiring even as they created problems of their own. But that brightness was often missing from the tone and flow of the music. In accomplishing a stately, graceful look at the processes and meanings behind the Great Migration, however, the Morans were certainly successful.