Imani Uzuri Brings Her Gospel-Inspired Gravitas and Historical Insight to Lincoln Center
Thursday night at Lincoln Center, singer Imani Uzuri put on a mesmerizing show that was part joyous gospel revival and part hushed, rapt classical concert, with a little Showtime at the Apollo during the early part. Uzuri stands with Fanon in asserting that the damned of the earth keep things running, and someday will inherit it. She wasted no time in dedicating the performance to the marginalized, the oppressed and those trapped in the prison-industrial complex.
That set the tone for what she had in store: the way she expressed those ideas was much more poetic and succinct. Her most recent show here was a stark, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on old African-American spiritual themes. This show was much more lavish, Uzuri flanked by a trio of singers – Joshuah B. Campbell, Ann McCormack and Carami Hilaire in addition to Yayoi Ikawa on piano, Nick Dunston on bass, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Kaoru Watanabe on flute, and Dana Lyn and Trina Basu on strings. And yet, Uzuri’s themes were just as hypnotic, emphatically grounded in dark, wounded, ancient-sounding minor-key blues riffs.
She took special care to send a shout-out to Vera Hall, one of the songwriters she covered, since her song, Troubles So Hard, had been sampled from a rare Smithsonian recording by a corporate radio meme – and apparently had been left uncredited. That long, allusively tormented number finally took an unexpected turn into a final verse with a message of hope against hope even in the most troubled times. As she did in several other numbers, Uzuri gave the other singers onstage plenty of room to add soaring, achingly melismatic solos. She also tried engaging the audience, with mixed results. Much as there were some very inspired, gospelly-informed voices in the house, the general afterwork lethargy absolutely bedeviled her. But that’s to be expected; Uzuri is used to energizing late-night crowds.
Another musical pioneer Uzuri covered was Elizabeth Cotten, who in her sixties worked as a maid for Pete Seeger until he found out that she was a songwriter, and the rest is history. Since then, her signature three-finger guitar technique has become a popular device throughout the worlds of folk music and acoustic blues. Uzuri and the group delivered that particular number with somewhat more of an upbeat vibe than they did with Hall’s resolute, relentless epic.
Throughout the show, Uzuri’s powerful voice ranged from looming, defiantly resonant lows to a stratospheric falsetto that sent microtones bleeding from the atrium’s bare walls. Ikawa rose from minimalist atmospherics, to nonchalantly loungey phrasing, to a sudden, white-knuckle intensity with a series of achingly gorgeous gospel-infused, chromatic solos. Sewell’s stamina in running the same leaping acoustic blues phrase over and over during one of the later numbers was impressive, not to mention the erudite, intricate Chicago blues, and little later the plaintive, elegaic slide work he he played on Telecaster.
Watanabe gave the opening and closing numbers a charanga-like brightness, balanced by a broodingly slashing blues solo from Lyn along with Basu, whose glimmering, nocturnal solo early on literally sent shivers through the PA system. And with Dunston holding close to the ground with his terse, propulsive, woody lines, who said a band has to have a drummer?
Uzuri closed with a world premiere commissioned by Chamber Music America, who spent their money well. In this pensively immersive suite, questioning where the human spirit has disappeared to, the group opened with a suspensefully circling string interlude and then went deeper in a gospel direction, winding down to a whisper. The ensemble brought the show full circle with a summery, vamping, latin-tinged psychedelic soul tableau.
The Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. has arguably the best and most eclectic mostly-weekly series of free concerts anywhere in New York. You can get your classical on this coming week when the Argus Quartet play there on March 5 at 7:30 PM. Then on March 12 there’s a shamanistic Korean dance-and-percussion performance.