To have heard Chris Parker and Kelley Hurts’ “No Tears Suite” on the third floor of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center tonight was to hear the world premiere of a jazz suite long in the making. Commissioned by the Oxford American and inspired by the words of one of the Little Rock Nine as she, Melba Pattillo Beals, and others integrated Central High School in 1957, the six-movement piece is a nimble blend of spoken word, jazz vocals and a score for a small orchestra that combines composition and improvisation.
To hear it Sunday afternoon at Central High School, the very ground from which its musical tumult springs, will be a premiere of its own kind: a premiere of place, you could say.
Originally performed as a septet in 2017 during a series of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of Central High School (near the Magnolia Mobil Gas Station outside Central High), the suite has since been been outfitted with orchestral parts by revered jazz bassist Rufus Reid, who sat tonight at the center of a tight circle of 23 musicians on stage with ASO Associate Conductor Geoff Robson conducting: jazz drummer Brian Blade, pianist/composer Chris Parker, librettist/vocalist/narrator Kelley Hurt, saxophonists Bobby LaVell and Chad Fowler, trumpeter Marc Franklin, and an ensemble of Arkansas Symphony Orchestra players.
Thematically, the music is both symbol of — and soundtrack for — Pattillo Beals’ documented experience, summed up best by a conclusion Hurt offers at the end of the third movement: “Its been an interesting year. I’ve had a course in human relations firsthand. Roll call for warriors.”
Musically, the suite marries triumph and tumult; Pattillo Beals was, after all, not only at the epicenter of colliding worlds — the segregationist South colliding with a nationwide call for school integration, federal government colliding with state government — but she was also experiencing it all as a young adult, and Parker’s score uses that sprawling range of emotion and character. There are moments carved out for majestic orchestral statements, but also for wailing sax solos and oboe/cello duets and, of course, room for Parker and Hurt to work their own magic. Hurt has vocal finesse and poise for days, and her “roll call” and the rest of the libretto was delivered with its own sense of musicality and cadence, well before Hurt had even officially sung a note.
The suite’s instrumentation, perhaps needless to say, isn’t conventional (Rain sticks! Cacophonous crescendos! Dirty sax riffs with violin!), but some inventive stage plotting and meticulous sound engineering saved the suite from any potential problems with balance, each element/instrument allowed to resurface in the listener’s ear when they had something to say.
Catch the free performance of the suite Sunday afternoon at Central High School. Admission is free, but you’ll need to RSVP here.