Recital Media Review
Roots: My Life, My Song: Jessye Norman
June 29, 2010 - Williamsburg, MA:
Roots: My Life, My Song: Jessye Norman, soprano, Mark Markham, piano, Ira Coleman, bass, Steve Johns, drums, Mike Lovatt, trumpet, Martin Williams, saxophone & clarinet; Sony Classical 88697 64263 2, ©2010, 98:16, $15.98.
This is the first recording that Jessye Norman has issued in a decade. The particular interest to North Carolinians, other than a personal liking of her voice and work by many of them, is that UNC-Chapel Hill awarded her an honorary DFA during the commencement ceremonies in 2008. As can be guessed from reading the above entry, this is not an art song and opera aria recital. Although neither the booklet cover nor the reverse of the tray card indicates it, the two CDs state “Live at the Philharmonie Berlin,” but the credits indicate that it is in fact a mix from that performance and two others at München and Frankfurt, all given in 2009. Some of the total time is therefore taken up by applause, although it does not appear after every number.
The two-fold sub-title indicates the division of the performance and the two CDs, obviously representing their two halves, each of which is sub-divided into two parts. The first disk is devoted to Norman’s African-American heritage and the second to her professional career and personal preferences. The recital might well be entitled "Jessye Norman Does Jazz," for she approaches all the songs from that perspective. She chooses for the first half, entitled “In the Beginning,” songs that relate to Africa and slavery. She is actually following a tradition that is fairly old, going back to Marian Anderson, who often included Spirituals in her recitals, although she did not jazz them up. These are followed by songs made famous by her “A-list” predecessors, i.e., female singers whose names end in ‘a’: Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Odetta. The second half includes two French classical works (Poulenc’s mélodie “Les Chemins de l’amour” and the “Habañera” from Bizet’sCarmen) and two popular songs (“J’ai deux amours,” made famous by Josephine Baker, and Vernon Duke’s “April in Paris”) in a set entitled “The French Connection.” Norman has twice been honored by the French Government, receiving the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1984 and the Légion d’honneur in 1989. The jazz approach to the two classical works is a bit disconcerting, not to say distorting to my ears. The balance of this CD is works by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.
The booklet, which features several lovely photos of Norman, opens with a personal note and invitation from her. This is followed by a brief biography, followed in turn by historical and descriptive notes for all but two (both Spirituals) of the selections under the heading: “Roots: My Life, My Song, Jessye Norman.” They may have been written by Norman herself or by someone else: because the personalization of the opening note is noticeably absent and they are otherwise un-credited, it is unclear. The track listings with timings (the latter not included on the outside of the tray card) with the credits (at the bottom in very fine print) occupy the final two-page opening. The back cover contains only a dedication and the product title. The inside of the tray card reproduces the photo of the booklet cover without the title.
While it is a joy to hear Norman singing the songs that mean so much to her personally, and to hear her putting her own stamp on each and every one of them, the production itself, beginning with the confusion about the authorship of the notes (usually credited at their end), is a bit unprofessional. Total time is not listed anywhere. The sticker that is affixed to the outside of the cello-wrap says “2-CD Set Featuring Music from Berlioz to Ellington,” but there is nothing by Berlioz on the CDs! The marketing of the set is clearly closer to that for a pop/rock star or a jazz musician than that for an opera singer. But this is not a true crossover album either, and is, in fact, far superior to the run-of-the-mill product of that genre by its readily apparent commitment, personalization, and sincerity. These latter characteristics may well render it a collectible one day, like the iconic albums of certain jazz musicians, and redeem the disappointments of its presentation.