LJF 2015: Ron McCurdy/Ice-T

Ron McCurdy's Langston Hughes Project proved to be balm to the ears of Garry Booth, in its combination of jazz tradition and rapper Ice-T's modern edge

Serious, the EFG London Jazz Festival promoter, pulled out a plum when they booked horn player Ron McCurdy’s quartet to perform the international debut of Ask Your Mama (12 Moods for Jazz), the epic poem by Langston Hughes. On one level, the raw material and McCurdy’s score is balm for the ears of older jazzers who are interested in the jazz tradition and the so-called Harlem renaissance movement that Hughes belonged to. But the involvement of Ice-T (pictured right with McCurdy), elder statesman of rap, added a modern edge that brought out a younger and engaged crowd to fill the Barbican main hall as well.

Ask Your Mama, first published in 1961, is the 12-part epic that Hughes started writing while he was at the ill-fated 1960 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival. That year the laid-back atmosphere was wrecked by drunken white students, spoiling for a fight while trying to force entry.

For the benefit of those who he thought might like to hear the music that was in his head at that turbulent time, Hughes included musical notations in the margins of the published book. The diverse sounds ranged from bebop to Latin cha cha, German lieder and African drumming. "And then in the back of the book, as if it were a record, I have a series of liner notes for the unhep, that is, for those who may not quite understand what the poem is about," he said mischievously in the preface.

Hughes himself had always wanted to perform the work on stage with jazz musicians, and discussed it with Charles Mingus and Randy Weston, but it never came to fruition before he died in 1967 aged 65. McCurdy’s live 21st century son et lumiere show replaces the author’s margin notes with a fast moving "videography" of images projected behind the quartet, cutting between shots from the glory days of the Gotham jazz scene and pictures of the daily struggle endured by black Americans through the 20th century.

The piece is a positive celebration of artistic triumph in adversity, however, and McCurdy is an ebullient and engaging frontman, in both his spoken commentary and raucous horn playing. He can sing too, here channelling a super soul version of Gil Scott-Heron. Positioned behind a lectern, a bespectacled Ice-T was the perfect foil, carving authoritatively through the verse, with its leitmotif of the traditional Hestitation Blues and delivering the recurring, admonishing, "Ask your Mama" pay-off line with a mixture of exasperation and pent-up fury.

Though the emphasis was on the spoken word throughout, Americans Yuma Sung (piano), Mark Hodgson (bass) plus Londoner Mark Mondesir on drums were all given their head, injecting feisty solo improvisations into the narrative flow.

Audiences today don’t need much encouragement to get on their feet and ovate. But the rapture produced by Ask Your Mama on Saturday night was a genuine response to a thrilling, thought-provoking mutli-media show.

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