Bandleader, bassist and composer Marcus Shelby has built an impressive resume as both a performer and teacher. In the 1990s he led the band Black/Note, which recorded on Columbia and GRP Impulse!, and he currently teaches at both the Berkeley Young Musician Program and the Stanford Jazz Workshop. As a student he studied with Charlie Haden and James Newton.
This two CD set, Harriet Tubman, is an original oratorio for jazz big band and vocal ensemble, seemingly modeled after Wynton Marsalis’ Blood On The Fields. Both use the convention of the jazz orchestra, with vocal soloists, to bring forth concepts and ideas of a serious nature; in Shelby’s piece the subject is the pioneering work of the African-American icon and true hero. The libretto for Tubman was adapted by Shelby from Kate Clifford Larson’s 2004 book, Harriet Tubman: Bound for the Promised Land and was commissioned by the Creative Work Fund and the Committee for Black Performing Arts at Stanford University.
The musicians, all from the Oakland and San Francisco Bay area, prove to be supple, malleable and a quite capable collection of honestly hard working individuals who came together to bring Shelby’s score to life. Vocalist Faye Carol, who provides the voice of Tubman, has a strong and emotive voice that is both pure and clean yet cracks with emotion when the lyric demands, and her scat on "Over Here Lord" shows she is steeped in the tradition. The instrumental soloists are all fine with standout work provided by Mike Olmos on trumpet; it’s a shame we hear so little of him.
Drummer Jeff Marrs absolutely tears it up on the drums. His work during ensemble passages and behind soloists is stellar. On "Ashanti Stomp" his cross rhythms provide just the right spark trombonist Danny Grewen requires to really dig into the feel. Grewen never rests, he’s continually finding ways to make the music come alive. From track to track, he’s enjoyable to listen to.
As a bassist Shelby is a rock. His time feel is perfection exemplified. As a composer, in instrumental sections, he creates lots of room for his soloists to say what they feel is needed without rushing them out, and his backgrounds behind the vocalists are always tasteful and defer to the singers.
Shelby has created a strong musical statement that will take effort to find, but is worth the time.