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Musical mastery on display at Berklee

Irma Thomas, Blind Boys of Alabama perform

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Musical mastery on display at Berklee
Irma Thomas (Photo: Rick Oliver)

The Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet wasted no time getting down to business Friday night at Berklee Performance Center as the first of three powerhouse acts in a concert presented by World Music/CRASHarts that also showcased another homegrown New Orleans icon, Irma Thomas, and a revered gospel group, the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Author: Cameron WittigThe Blind Boys of Alabama

What these musicians all have in common are African American musical traditions rooted in their communities — the churches, celebrations and clubs; fluency in these traditions’ many musical veins, including blues, soul, jazz, gospel and R&B and decades of experience, awards and industry accolades.

Grammy-winning singer “Soul Queen” Irma Thomas has been recording and performing for six decades. The Blind Boys, now in their seventh decade, have won five Grammy awards. The quintet, containing alumni of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, bring music honed in their venerable Crescent City home, Preservation Hall.

All this mastery was on full display in the concert, as the musicians served up a tasty Creole musical brew and demonstrated the power of that gumbo to move hearts and lift spirits. Each act performed for about a half-hour and then returned to join one another’s sets during the 90-minute concert, a tight touring show entitled “The Heart and Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

Throughout the concert, the musicians spoke of their music and performed with warm camaraderie toward one another and the audience.

Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet

The Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet opened the show with the deliriously infectious “Hindustan,” which featured solos that introduced each member and concluded with a cacophonous, old school jam.

The ensemble’s youngest member, reed-player Calvin Johnson, delivered a strong bop-inflected soprano sax solo that evoked another New Orleans native son, Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), whose early soprano sax recordings drew this instrument’s lyricism into the canon of jazz.

Trumpeter Gregg Stafford took the lead in “Just A Little While,” telling the audience that it demonstrates the Crescent City’s tradition of a brass band funeral march, and sang and played his way through a high-energy solo. Later, in “Bourbon Street Parade,” through a series of vocal and trumpet growls, Stafford gave a tip of the hat to the founding father of New Orleans jazz, Louis Armstrong. And in a long and mighty solo, percussionist Joe Lastie, Jr. created a smooth tornado on his drums.

Showing off his instrument’s big, deep voice, trombonist Frederick Lonzo took the spotlight in “Basin Street Blues,” making his horn ripple and drone as he lowered himself to the floor, demonstrating with his body the ever-lower register of his notes, until, without any interruption in his horn-playing, he was on his back, pointing out his fancy striped socks. During his descent, Lonzo breathed into his instrument to make balloon-like notes that mimicked the sound of a fighter plane taking a dive, antics abetted by Johnson, who mimed a pilot at the controls, and Stafford, who said, “I hear the sound of World War II.”

Sustaining showmanship of a different kind, keyboardist Peter Levin provided fine organ and piano accompaniment and compelling solos throughout the concert.

The Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama came on stage in their characteristic formation, hands on one another’s shoulders and attired in matching beige suits. Their current leader, Jimmy Carter, a frail-looking powerhouse, is an original member of the ensemble, who met in 1939 as students at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind.

Carter, 90, introduced fellow vocalists Paul Beasley, Ben Moore, and Ricky McKinnie, and the ensemble’s young accompanists, guitarist Joey Williams and Ray Ladson on bass guitar and piano.

Presiding over his ensemble’s set and the rest of the concert, Carter said, “We hope to sing something that will lift you up and make you feel good.” Indeed they did.

Carter began with a poignant solo rendition of “Almost Home,” the title song of the group’s latest album, released in August, a suite of semi-biographical songs that follows the ensemble from its start in the late ’30s.

With the raw power of his worn and weathered voice, Carter conjured the sad memory of arriving at his boarding school when he was just 7 years old. “I thought the world had ended when that train pulled away,” Carter sang, backed by Ladson’s muted piano accompaniment. “I was just a little boy scared and alone.”

Another standout in a memorable set was the ensemble’s rendering of the hymn “Conference Table,” backed by the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet. Leading all was Paul Beasley, a tall man with a lordly crown of thick hair and a liquid falsetto. Gesturing like a preacher, Beasley guided the musicians in the repetition of the chorus, “There will never be any peace until God is seated at the conference table.” Gaining force with each repetition, including one round with a euphoric tenor sax solo by Johnson, the chorus climaxed with a sensational crescendo. A tide of brass, percussion and vocals rose in unison as Beasley reached for the sky with his outspread arms and soaring voice.

Irma Thomas

Before leaving the stage with his fellow vocalists, Carter warmly introduced Irma Thomas, who stepped out looking handsome in a black gown.

Creating an easy conversational rapport with the audience, Thomas said that although she hadn’t been “in these parts” for a long time, she still remembered Helen, a waitress at Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square, “who could remember every order for a table of six without writing anything down.” She hoped that someone would drop by and tell Helen that Irma Thomas was asking for her.

Thomas presented a somewhat autobiographical set, making wise and humorous comments as she introduced songs she has written of her experiences with love at all stages of her life. “Love don’t change … but people do,” was the rueful message of her first selection. Saying she’d written the next song, “Wish Someone Would Care,” in five minutes, venting her anger at a man back in 1964, Thomas volunteered that she was now age 76. “I see you counting on your fingers to figure out my age,” she said, laughing, to a man in the front row. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Moving from a song about cluelessness in matters of the heart (“You Don’t Know Nothin’ About Love”), Thomas concluded with a rousing version of “(You Can Have My Husband but Please) Don’t Mess With My Man,” saying that her man and her husband were now the same guy.

The Blind Boys returned to the stage for a roof-raising finale. Carter summoned the audience to its feet to join all the musicians in a rousing rendition of “If I Had A Hammer.”

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