VARIOUS ARTISTSRhapsodies in Black: Music and Words From the Harlem Renaissance (Rhino)

The highlight of Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words From the Harlem Renaissance comes at the beginning of the fourth and final disc, when Alfre Woodard gives a pitch-perfect reading of Georgia Douglas Johnson‘s poem ”I Want To Die While You Love Me.“ Woodard’s voice ebbs and flows with a grown-up‘s desire, conveying in tone and texture those interlocked impulses behind love and death, lust and the ultimate satiation. In fact, it’s the poetry readings that really make this collection such a treasure: Angela Bassett leaning hard into the mike, hard into the words of Helene Johnson‘s ”Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem,“ with the actress’ trademarked clench-jaw style of acting carefully modulated to bring forth the anger and haughtiness both celebrated and exemplified in the poem; Ice T (a choice that could have easily come off as stunt-casting) reading Claude McKay‘s seething ”If We Must Die“ and showing the full-circle connection between hip-hop and the earlier arts movement. Gregory Hines and Debbie Allen are exemplary, too, on Leon Damas’ ”Soon“ and an excerpt from Zora Neale Hurston‘s classic essay, ”How It Feels To Be Colored Me,“ respectively.

That’s not to say there aren‘t some duds in the crop. Chuck D. drifts into a stereotypical Negro poetspoken-word artist cadence on Sterling Brown’s ”Odyssey of Big Boy,“ while Darius Rucker and record-industry honcho Sylvia Rhone are absolutely colorless in their recitations. Actually, Rhone‘s flat reading of Langston Hughes’ ”Mother to Son“ (a favorite of hack black actresses everywhere) is a relief from the overwrought Raisin in the Sun–style dramatics usually employed to read it. And ”Mother to Son“ benefits from one of the collection‘s biggest strengths — its sequencing. Rhone is followed by Paul Robeson singing ”Deep River,“ and his deep, gorgeous voice seems to flow from the emotion and warmth at the heart of Hughes’ words. Perhaps the most brilliant sequencing occurs when Lou Rawls‘ pungent reading of Waring Cuney’s ”No Images“ (”She does not know her beautyshe thinks her brown body has no gloryIf she could dance naked under palm treesand see images in the river, she would knowbut . . . dishwater gives back no images“) is followed by Lonnie Johnson‘s ”Woke Up With the Blues in My Fingers.“ There’s poetry in that segue.

On the musical side, everyone from Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey are represented, with tracks ranging from the overly familiar (”St. Louis Blues“) to the coolly obscure. On the second disc, titled ”Testifyin‘ & Philosophyin’,“ the smooth sophistication of Paul Whiteman‘s ”After You’ve Gone“ is preceded by the equally sophisticated but more wildly exuberant ”Senegalese Stomp“ by the Savoy Bearcats. Look closely at the names of the artists (WhitemanSavoy Bearcats), at the song title, ”Senegalese Stomp,“ and see how fitting, how wickedly appropriate, the artists‘ monikers are for the vibe and sounds they created, and how it all plays into, then subverts, racial stereotypes. But what’s most exciting is the breadth of aesthetic and artistic content. Too often the Harlem Renaissance is spoken of with so much reverence that it comes off like Shakespeare, something that‘s rarefied and good for you. What the folks at Rhino have done is the same thing Shakespeare scholars have tried to do for centuries — remind us that the power of the art wasn’t just in the cerebral, but in the sexy muck of body fluids and messy emotions. In Rhapsodies in Black, shimmering tuxedoes and pompadours are side-by-side with pig-ear sandwiches and sloshing jelly-jars full of rot-gut.

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