As you examine the lines and movements of a Romare Bearden work - Drum Chorus (1986), Slapping Seventh Avenue With the Sole of My Shoes (1981) and others - you can hear the music. You can hear the horns ebb, flow and soar, the drums roll, the voices wail and explode. No other visual artist captured with paint and photographs the essence, the funk, the soul of the African-American experience the way Bearden did. Like the jazz that inspired him, the paintings swing - the rhythms aflame in oils, watercolors and collages. There's a pulse in the open spaces.
The latest album by the Branford Marsalis Quartet, Romare Bearden Revealed, is a collection of nine songs inspired by the painter's work. Produced by the saxophonist and released on his Marsalis Music label, the CD came out on Tuesday to complement The Art of Romare Bearden, the major retrospective that opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington tomorrow and will hit museums in Dallas, San Francisco, New York and Atlanta over the next two years.
Born on Sept. 2, 1912, in Charlotte, N.C., Bearden grew up in Harlem and died in 1988. Marsalis, who is now a resident of North Carolina, met the artist a few years before his death. As the Romare Bearden Foundation planned the retrospective, the organization asked the jazz man to develop a soundtrack to the visual art. Marsalis, an owner of two Bearden pieces, embraced the idea and put together a meditation that is accessible and rich as it brings to life the painter's bold images of musicians jamming in an after-hours joint, of weary Southerners waiting for a northbound train.
Unlike the virtuosic but sometimes overbearing style of his trumpet-playing brother Wynton, Marsalis' sound radiates warmth; it's open and always focused. That's especially true throughout Revealed. Wynton, in fact, plays on the CD - adding eloquent, luminous lines to "Jungle Blues." The cut features the entire Marsalis clan (father Ellis on piano, brothers Delfeayo on trombone and Jason on drums) recorded live at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center.
Inflected with the blues, "J Mood," the title track of a 1986 Wynton album for which Bearden drew the cover, is a highlight. The song flows for nearly 11 minutes with elegant solos from the Marsalis brothers (Wynton and Branford), stylishly understated piano from Joey Calderazzo and bright drums from Jeff "Tain" Watts.
"Seabreeze," a romantic tune with lovely lyrics by Bearden ("Seabreeze, blowing to the shore/Cool, like the perfumed kiss of a starlight night/Awakening love that still burns so bright ... " ), was recorded in the '50s by legendary vocalist Billy Eckstine. But over the years, numerous musicians - Dizzy Gillespie, Gigi Gryce, Yusef Lateef, Tito Puente - have waxed instrumental versions. On Revealed, Marsalis plays it straight with subtle improvisations here and there. Which is fine because the melody itself is so hypnotic. But it would have been fitting to feature a vocalist - perhaps Cassandra Wilson, Nnenna Freelon or Dianne Reeves - interpreting the lyrics. After all, Bearden wrote them, they're seldom heard, and this is a tribute to the man.
Elements of hard bop, swing, rustic folk and deep blues swim through Revealed. With his twangy guitar on "Autumn Lamp," Doug Wamble conjures an image of an old man sitting on the porch as the sun slides down the sky behind him.
On Revealed, Marsalis and the other musicians sound genuinely inspired, emanating sophistication and, above all, soul.
Which is what Bearden was all about anyway.