Monday, January 2, 2012

Harlem in Vogue

The Poetry & Jazz of Langston Hughes

I've been reading Langston Hughes pretty much my whole life.  He's one of the essential poets, and his work is easy to understand when introducing poetry to young people.  I've only rarely been blown away by anything he's written, but I do have a tremendous amount of respect for his place in the American canon, especially his place in the history of African-American literature.

Harlem in Vogueis a collection of recordings that Hughes made in the late 50s.  There are 29 tracks on this disc, divided into four sessions.

The first ten tracks were done with Leonard Feather's All-Star Sextet accompanying Hughes, playing music that attempted to match and augment the poetry.  Then there are eleven tracks where Hughes is joined by Charles Mingus and the Horace Parlan Quintet.  This part is my favourite section of the album, as Mingus understands the themes of the poems, and the music matches them perfectly. 

After that, there are six tracks that have Hughes speaking without musical accompaniment.  These are much longer selections, and most revolve around his character of Simple; most are more prose pieces than poems.  It is in this part of the disc that we get to hear two of Hughes's most famous poems: 'I have known rivers' and 'I too'. 

The disc finishes with two 'jazz interpretations' of Hughes's work by the Bob Dorough Quintet.  These are nice, except that the female vocalist is rather annoying.

In all, this CD is an important historical artifact, and gives listeners the rare chance to hear the actual voice of a poet long dead.  It feels like it's important to own an item like this, even if I find that I rarely want to sit down and listen to it.

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