In the Morning, When I Rise.” “In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning.” “My Lord, What a Morning.” There’s something about “the morning” and the Spirituals. This communal fixation with the break of day is probably linked to hope, optimism and renewal. The good news gospel that birthed this body of song became an energizing presence within black expressive culture in the United States from slavery up to the present. And American musicians have returned to these songs for their appealing and tuneful melodies, strophic didacticism, and syncopated rhythms that are foundational to blues, jazz, gospel and R&B.
Indeed, there was something special about the midnight—early morning—set at The Blue Note (NYC) in which pianist and composer Courtney Bryan played a delightful set of her own arrangements and compositions. Carving out an original path in today’s music industry can be a tricky endeavor because of the pressure to honor established formulas. Yet Bryan, a PhD candidate in composition at Columbia University, is navigating this terrain well through credentials, creativity and courage—but not necessarily in that order. Situated at the nexus of jazz, Western art music, and black church traditions, Bryan’s work is grounded in her reworking of the Spirituals, as she is prone to twist this material into various shapes like an illusionist. Her songs are infused and move sonically among the Joplin-esque, Alice Coltrane, and Keith Jarrett influences with impressionist flourishes of shimmering color splashed around from dramatic effect. Technically strong, Bryan’s work also included jaw-dropping passages of counterpoint based on rapid, repetitive gestures that, while working against themselves, magically produced a danceable trance. Her melodies, often played in octaves, sounded powerfully above the soundscape.
Bryan divided her set into three tableaux: piano solo (mostly arranged Spirituals), an electric duet with drummer Kim Thompson, and a piece with pre-recorded music. It worked great. Bryan’s interaction with Thompson was especially thrilling as they moved around their sonic conversation with affirming smiles, concentration and the sheer joy of avant-garde experimentation. Yes, women doing the serious work. The precious experimental piece with prerecorded sounds was full of quiet intrigue. Based on songs about human emotions, Bryan used multiple strategies to engage the piece: playing along in strict imitation, working as a palimpsest by adding her own “track” to the piece, and soloing as both a related interlude and segue into the next track. Sometimes her piano work was “period-specific” (the recordings were historically varied) and at other times they clashed purposefully with the underlying recordings.
Imagination and freedom—the same forces that put the “gettin’ up” in the culture of the “Spirituals folk”—were alive and well that morning at the Blue Note. Courtney Bryan is a culture bearer of this aesthetic, and she is pushing it in exciting directions. As the critic Greg Tate said of her performance, she represents a “forward march” to the artform.”