Michigan’s Akropolis Reed Quintet has a new project out, Ghost Light (New Focus Records), which consists of five works that the wind group commissioned over the past two years dealing with the cycle of life, death, and rebirth in various situations. Throughout, the quintet’s instruments are beautifully recorded, particularly the booming, grainy bottom notes of the bass clarinet.
The biggest, most topical, and ultimately most-newsworthy work of the lot comes from Jeff Scott, the horn player of the Imani Winds quintet, who delivered a half-hour-plus ode to a nearly forgotten urban neighborhood that no longer exists.
First, the background: Black Bottom and its neighbor, the ironically named Paradise Valley, were Black neighborhoods in Detroit just northeast of downtown, fed by the Great Migration from the South in the first half of the 20th century (though the name Black Bottom originated much earlier from the color of the soil; it was also a dance originating from the South). They were known for lively business and entertainment life and the abject poverty of many of the residents. Jazz, the blues, gospel, and early R&B flourished there; the neighborhoods spawned the likes of the Rev. C.L. Franklin and his precocious daughter Aretha, among many others. Jazz fans would know Jelly Roll Morton’s joyous “Black Bottom Stomp,” a few others might know Nat Adderley’s funky if downbeat “Down in Black Bottom.”
Eventually, urban renewal and construction of the I-75 and I-375 freeways in the 1950s and 1960s literally wiped Black Bottom and Paradise Valley off the maps. Today, there are two modern stadiums for the baseball Tigers and football Lions and upscale housing where the old neighborhoods once were.
Scott’s Homage to Paradise Valley is partly an elegy for what was lost, and partly a chipper attempt to evoke some of the high spirits of the community in classical terms, with only bare hints of blues and jazz in a few passages. Poet Marsha Music provides an eloquent if somewhat rose-colored spoken history before three of the four movements; her father ran a legendary record store, Joe’s Records, that was a switchboard for Black musical culture in those days. She believes that fear of Black economic power led to Paradise Valley’s demise — which links up with today’s outrage over the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” district 100 years ago this week.
So the piece is about life and death, but there is no rebirth. The score struck me as mostly abstract and detached; whatever feelings I felt for the subject was due to the suggestion of the spoken words.
The rest of the lengthy disc, which runs just a few seconds short of 80 minutes, is but a long prelude to the homage. Stacy Garrop’s 4 Rites for the Afterlife traces the journey of the deceased, with winds moaning aimlessly at first, passing dolefully through the Netherworld, then going through a more animated and tortured stretch before everything is peaceful and content. Michael Gilbertson’s Kinds of Light is mostly a series of unison writing depicting layers of colors, with a steal from Steve Reich’s pulsating tremolos in the fourth movement.
Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s Firing Squad continues on a morbid level, running through the memories – some pleasant, some troubling and discordant — of one who is about to be executed, ending with a collective sigh. And Theo Chandler’s Seed to Snag is another life cycle, starting with various curlicues and trills signifying a sprout that eventually develops into a mostly lively toccata full of bloom and optimism before withering away.