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When Song Could Really Sing

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Mar 18th, 2018

From left: Julius Rodriguez, Damien Sneed, Dezron Douglas, Keyon Harrold, Cedric Easton 

Damien Sneed recently conducted the work of Wynton Marsalis at Carnegie Hall and he is preparing to premiere his new opera in Chicago this coming May, but last night he was at Bard’s LUMA Theater with an accomplished quintet paying tribute to “The Golden Age of Song.” Sneed is a piano player who plays Beethoven and Chopin, jazz, soul, and gospel. As a singer he can range from counter-tenor to tenor, baritone and deep bass. While LUMA is a comfortable Black Box style theater, it was sold out and perhaps too small for the giant sound of this quartet which at times approached the robust sound of a big band.

A dozen great songs from the middle of the last century were given new orchestral settings and interpretation with Sneed singing and playing the piano. Sneed sang the first half while Julius Rodriguez played the piano, then during the second half Sneed played piano as he sang while Rodriguez backed Sneed on keyboard synthesizer and did a bit of drumming. Dezron Douglas on bass was formidable, setting solid ground for everyone. Cedric Easton, who has played along with Aaron Diehl, was forceful without overplaying his hand.

“Someone in Love,” a song dominated by women like Sophie Milman provided a male version that was captivating, raw, tender, and a more profound version than any female singer in Sneed’s passionate voice with a new orchestral arrangement that fully supported him. As an opener, this was a real eye-opener. “Nature Boy,” a song made famous by Nat King Cole, definitely left the impression that Cole was out of date. “Pure Imagination” has been an overly romantic pop song in the hands of Lou Rawls or Johnny Matthis, but Sneed gave this rather corny song a jazz spotlight to believe in. Likewise, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” somehow managed to escape cliché. I was really taken by Sneed’s version of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” a song made famous by the great Nina Simone. Here Sneed sang from the dark depths of yearning in soulful lament that was truly moving.

Sneed introduced trumpet player Keyon Harrold from Ferguson, MO. This was a lengthy elegy for Michael Brown entitled “MB’s Lament (When Will It Stop) which worked the St. Louis Blues motif into a plangent solo. Harrold’s composition will be recognized as a classic elegy from our era.

After intermission Sneed opened with Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child,” the only song apparently written by her. A difficult song to compete with, Sneed had some interesting vocal riffs, yet I thought the piece over-orchestrated, the orchestrating cluttering the powerful simplicity of the song. The arrangement of “Moanin’” was an improvement over Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers yet it was based upon their light tinkling version which had far more resonance in Sneed’s version.

“Come Sunday” has been a song dominated by women like Mahalia Jackson and even Kathleen Battle, so Sneed’s solo version on piano was a revelation. The song was stripped down to its essentials and emotion vibrated with deep waves. For me, this was the apex of the concert with Sneed lost in the deep hope of the song. This was the one-man crescendo reel that still burns in my memory as I write. “Wade in the Water,” a traditional soul hymn offered jazzy variations that were a wonder to hear.

“DFA” was a late composition written by one of Sneed’s former teachers, Donald Macey, at John S. Davidson Fine Arts High School. The work began with the notes dfa and traveled far from his hometown of Augusta, GA, yet retained its local roots amid lush orchestration moving toward the classical.

In Sneed’s quartet there was an aspect of classical fusion, a movement in jazz that I’m not keen on. This was the first concert in this genre that I can say really succeeded when this quintet adopted that direction. Sneed is rooted in tradition yet he has the talent to grow those traditions he is rooted in; he is our new expander and exponent of that live tradition for today.

The third panel of this series commissioned by Catskill Jazz Factory (founder Piers Playfair had delivered opening remarks), “Sanctified Soul: 1960s to Today” was given a concluding preview with a version of “Walk With Me Lord” which will be performed on April 21. This concert was sold out, so if this review wets your appetite, go to http://fishercenter.bard.edu/events/event/?eid=133744.