The 2-disc set entitled Harriet Tubman from the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra is a fusion of American swing, scat, blues, gospel, and spiritual/soul jazz. In the tradition of great jazz oratorios such as Duke Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige, bass player and bandleader Marcus Shelby has composed an original oratorio with his 15-piece jazz orchestra and 4-piece vocal ensemble chronicling the life of one of the world’s most inspirational heroes in history Harriet Tubman. She was a triumphant leader of the Underground Railroad and dubbed the "Moses of her people" and "The Black Liberator."
Shelby creates an adaptation of historian Kate Clifford Larson’s book, Harriet Tubman: Bound for the Promised Land, published in 2004 in this 2-disc set. The compositions are biographical pieces with Faye Carol singing the lead role of Harriet Tubman and vocalists Kenny Washington, Joseph Mace, and Jeannine Anderson singing the additional figures in Ms. Tubman’s life. Produced by Eric Moffat, Kate Dumbleton, and Marcus Shelby, Harriet Tubman is a creative and pedagogical piece of work that reflects compositions made for stage productions. At times, the music is upbeat like a vaudeville show-theme which keeps the mood feeling jubilant, and at other times, the music is intensely spiritual and moving like an opera. The four vocalists have a powerful impact on these compositions and make these tracks a meaningful experience for the listener.
Larson tells in the liner notes of the album that Shelby returned to Tubman’s place of birth, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and traveled to the places of Tubman’s life to obtain a sense what she must have felt, walking in her steps through the fields, forests, and waterways of her youth as a slave growing up in Maryland. He additionally traveled through the rugged terrain of her Underground Railroad escapes and to Auburn, New York where Tubman eventually settled down and gathered her family who had been sold to various overseers throughout the South. Shelby’s selections take the audience through Tubman’s journey transcribed into music from being a slave to becoming a freedom fighter and a civil rights activist. Larson explains, in her research she discovered that Harriet Tubman did indeed compose songs to convey hidden messages for escapees to follow. Marcus put himself in Tubman’s shoes and imagined what some of those messages might be like, which he delivers in the spiritual hymn "Go Down Moses," as the singers chant verses like, "Thus saith the Lord/ Bold Moses said, let my people go/ If not I’ll smite your firstborn dead/ Let my people go/ Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land/ Tell ol’ Pharaoh, let my people go."
The opening scene, "Prelude: Ben & Rit" expresses the union of Harriet Tubman’s parents who were named Ben and Rit. Shelby’s interpretation of their union is a somber bluesy aria with horns moving lethargically. The horns and piano keys pick up an uptempo pulsation reveling in American swing on the following track "Ashanti Stomp," which symbolizes the nobility of the Ashanti people, the African tribe that Tubman’s grandmother Modesty was born from and taken to America on a slave ship in 1750. Faye Carol sings the blues on "I Will Not Stand Still" with wonderful emotive inflections. The song symbolizes Tubman’s circumstances as a slave with the will of a freedom fighter. The upbeat feel of Kenny Washington’s voice on "Ben (Passin’ Time)" has the happy feet shuffles of Danny Glover with American swing atmospherics. The song is reflective of Tubman’s father Ben who kept his spirit high while he worked and had to be separated from his wife Rit as he recites, "Thinking of the one I love." The slow bluesy melody is complimented by Carol’s vocals which wind around the lyrics expressing the struggles and hardships of being a slave and seeing her siblings sold to other plantation owners.
The proceeding track "Life On The Chesapeake" has a soul jazz/swing modulation that symbolizes Tubman’s first 27 years of life living on the Chesapeake Bay. The vocals have graceful spirituality that projects drama and optimism in the mood of the scene. The reposing blues jazz shades of "Over Here Lord" have tenderly stroking flames as the vocals touch up the song with a majestic feel that includes a gingerly bluesy resonance and scat vocals. The tune represents Tubman’s faith in God and for giving her strength and protection during a very trying time in her life. The lounging waltz of "North Of Delaware" has torchlight vocals that allude to Tubman’s escape from her overseer. The mood is positive and nary is a fear heard.
The second disc opens up with a sprightly atmosphere illuminating "Stampede Of Slaves" symbolizing groups of slaves escaping and coming through the Underground Railroad into freedom. The wavy flute lines are hypnotic as the counter themes create a bustling swing activity. The track has moments of quietude and busy activity reflecting the traveling experience of the Underground Railroad passengers. "Freedom Trail" connects to "Stampede Of Slaves" exposing feelings of being liberated with glorious Afro-accented themes and jubilant American swing. The opus of military marches in the rhythm sections of "54th Regiment" symbolizes the black soldiers who fought in the Union’s 54th Regiment. The tune’s spirituality is moving with gospel-loomed vocals and a soft bluesy sway. The tune "Black Suffrage Blues" has joyful bluesy ripples that move with the ease and intimacy of a jazz club quartet. The song represents Tubman’s role in the woman’s suffrage movement according to the liner notes. The oratorio concludes with the spiritual "Go Down Moses" which gives a sense of hope to oppressed communities. Marcus Shelby’s blend of American swing with elements of blues, scat, gospel, and spiritual/soul jazz are interpreted in a way that represents Harriet Tubman’s life journey and forms an enchanting tale.
Shelby has been playing the acoustic bass for 23 years. Besides being the Artistic Director and bandleader of the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, he also plays in the Marcus Shelby Trio and the Marcus Shelby Septet. He holds an instructor position at the Berkeley Young Musician Program at San Francisco State University and conducts the Stanford Jazz Workshop. He has composed music scores for a number of film, theater and dance productions. His latest release Harriet Tubman with his 15-piece jazz orchestra shows purpose as well as expertise of the medium of swing jazz. It is an album that can easily be transformed into a stage/dance production giving the compositions even greater meaning as a three dimensional form of art.