Composer/saxophonist Darryl Yokley: Pictures at an African Exhibition — interview & review
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View British visual artist David Emmanuel Noel’s paintings commissioned for Pictures at an African Exhibition
Composer/saxophonist Darryl Yokley has described his 2018 Truth Revolution Recording Collective release Pictures at an African Exhibition as a jazz symphony. Yokley has opted for a big brush approach to instrumentation, including a wind ensemble of 12 players in addition to the five members of his band Sound Reformation. The 13-movement result, while indebted in spirit to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is entirely original. And not unlike Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, Yokley’s brilliantly conceived and highly entertaining Pictures at an African Exhibition already has legs, with performances over the past year enthusiastically received around the world. Darryl Yokley’s Pictures at an African Exhibition has raised the bar of expectation in the growing genre of large, multi-movement and purposeful jazz compositions. Jazz symphony, indeed!
Mussorgsky’s narrative premise - a visitor promenading through an art exhibit, the composer describing with musical imagery, several paintings the visitor sees- has been turned around by Yokley, commissioning British visual artist David Emmanuel Noel to create artworks that convey the composer’s 13 distinct musical titles: First Sunrise; Migration; Ubuntu; Stories from the Village Elder; Ominous Nightfall; Hunting Natives; The Birth of Swing; Echoes of Ancient Sahara; Genocide March; Mines of Diamonds, Crimson and Gold; Cry The Beloved Country; Blessings from the Bennu and New Sunrise.
Pictures at an African Exhibition sequences through 13 historical tableau using a device that worked well for Mussorgsky; a central narrative protagonist. Yokley’s alto sax is tour guide for this exhibition iteration, his often optimistic improvisatory suave acting as guidepost and guardrail through the wonderful big band craziness and many beautifully written cameos and vignettes of Migration. Ubuntu is already a hit single, Yokley’s keen sense of orchestration (the bass clarinet/sax bits for example) coloring this movement beautifully. Stories from the Village Elder is magical for its wise, peaceful temperament, while Ominous Nightfall presents Yokley’s credentials as a composer for wind ensemble.
A superb and mesmerizing drum solo by Nasheet Waits segues the listener fatalistically from Ominous Nightfall to the horrors of Hunting Natives, a further example of Yokley’s command of orchestration. Sound imagery in The Birth of Swing is so powerful (the lapping surf sounds) one can “see” vividly, that gate through which Africans were herded in chains to ships for the slave trade journey to North America. Echoes of Ancient Sahara, an homage to African Moorish styles in a surround of sophisticated jazz club couture contrasts starkly with Genocide March, it’s little drummer boy cadence in the opening bars soon morphing to grotesquery and Mines of Diamonds, Crimson and Gold, a death march reminding us that Africans are still slaves on their own continent.
The hard but necessary segments of Yokley’s epic historical journey addressed, Pictures at an African Exhibition salves hurt with joy in its last three tracks. Cry The Beloved Country is just plain stand-alone sweet, busy, jazzy and classy with a wonderful tenor sax improv and more. Blessings from the Bennu, rich in magical colors and imaginative development (the solo piano riff midway through the movement is mesmerizing) segues naturally into the last track New Sunrise, a delightful wrap for a fascinating and difficult project.
Sensitive as well as spectacular performances by Darryl Yokley primarily on tenor but also alto sax (tracks 4 and 12) with members of Sound Reformation Zaccai Curtis piano, Luques Curtis bass and Gimbri, Wayne Smith J.R. drums and chains and special guest Nasheet Waits drums. The superb wind ensemble Yokley assembled for this disc are Kevin Willois and Ellen Fisher Deerburg flutes; Marie Trudeau oboe and English horn; Kenneth Ellison and Deno Orkin clarinets; Gregory Riley bass clarinet; Zachary Feingold bassoon, Jonathan Powell and Josh Lawrence trumpets; Marshall Sealy French horn; David Gibson trombone and Brent White bass trombone.
Visual artist/collaborator David Emmanuel Noel describes the pageant of Yokley’s vision in Pictures at an African Exhibition as “capturing a continent’s milestones, from the celebration of life and execution of cultural creativity, to human struggle and the emancipation of a diaspora.” Yokley’s music is the source material for this CD and is by itself complete, When the listener also takes time to pair the music with Noel’s artwork for each track (easily accessible online), the aesthetic reward doubles. Mussorgsky and painter Vicktor Hartmann found each other and created a masterpiece together. So too, composer Darryl Yokley and visual artist David Emmanuel Noel. Art begets art.
Daniel Kepl | Performing Arts Review
Interview with composer/saxophonist Darryl Yokley
Tenor/alto saxophonist/composer Darryl Yokley
Pictures at an African Exhibition- Collaboration with Composer Darryl Yokley
Darryl Yokley Performs Ubuntu
Sound Reformation pianist Zaccai Curtis during the recording session
The release party
Darryl Yokley Discusses Pictures at an African Exhibition
The wind ensemble for Pictures