Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson: Louisiana Blues Strut – A Cakewalk
Niccolò Paganini: Paganini Caprice # 11 ^
Charlie Parker: Scrapple from the Apple ^
James Weldon Johnson: Lift Every Voice and Sing ^
Eugène Ysaÿe: Violin Sonata n° 2, opus 27 ^
Curtis Stewart: SHOOK – Sum1 – Stay Woke – Magic Might – Until the Glass Breaks – Our Past is Our Privilege
Elektra Kurtis: Mangas ^
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata n° 3 in C major, BWV 1005 “Adagio” ^
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata n° 26 in E-Flat major, opus 81A “Les Adieux” ^
John Coltrane: After the Rain ^
Stevie Wonder: Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing – Isn’t She Lovely? ^
(^ arr. Curtis J. Stewart)
Curtis J. Stewart (violin, vocals, electronics)
Recording: Venue (unknown) (2021) – 61’44
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0155
On face value, jazz, classical and hip-hop seem like strange bedfellows. But in the capable hands of violinist Curtis J. Stewart and friends, the merging of these three streams creates an innovative fusion with a distinctive character of its own.
The advance material for Stewart’s new album, “Of Power,” calls it “a post-classical creation inspired by personal adversity and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Created entirely during the COVID-19 lockdown and releasing on the Bright Shiny Things label with the intention to coincide with Juneteenth - African American Freedom Day.” Although I think the term, “post-classical,” may be an oxymoron, the trail this album blazes is one of the directions serious music is taking today in search of relevance for our time.
The album contains 17 tracks, varied and interesting in different ways, some with Stewart’s driven, hard-hitting violin performances, others with a mix of electronic and traditional instruments and the human voice. But the voice is never the dominant feature, and sometimes whispers a statement of longing or protest that strikes the ear like Samson’s supplication at the end of Saint-Saëns’ “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (Samson et Dalila).
The name of each selection is critical to understanding. Titles such as Paganini Caprice – Andante and Presto rub elbows with selections such as Shook, Don’t you worry about a THANG and Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely? The individual songs may take a melodic fragment or idea from particular composers, but these pieces morph into something original and relevant to Stewart’s view, whether hatched in an urban neighborhood or from an international Weltanschauung. His improvisational skills reveal a strong Jazz inheritance, but unlike the Jazz violin great, Stéphane Grappelli, it’s not a matter of simply playing time-tested tunes in a new but still familiar way. Stewart hears a different drummer, and follows a unique path with intelligence, conviction, and pluck.
I found the selection, Beethoven 2020 especially intriguing. The keyboard was dressed with only minimal electronic effects as the artist rapped a poetic message fraught with 21st century angst. “I’m not a victim: I give a lot, I live a lot, in a regular rhythm. I can’t seem to plan for all the knots in the system.” Behind his ruminations, a digitally altered section of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata n° 26 in E-Flat major, opus 81a, adds its own take on loss and sorrow, cushioning the voice as it adds its own to a new creation.
A New Yorker, Stewart is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and has performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and many other venues. A quick overview of his YouTube presence reveals a highly talented artist who early in his career developed a freer, more improvisational style and a solid, even forceful presence. This persona, in turn, is evolving to the Stewart of “Of Power,” finding in the unity of music styles the strength to address the seemingly insurmountable issues of our time, especially as faced by black and brown communities. We see a more troubled, even angry, side to Stewart’s spirit in this recording, but there are tender moments as well. It may well be the darkness that comes before dawn.