Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Nitanju Bolade Casel noted, in introducing the traditional song “Somebody Prayed for Me” early in the group’s Carnegie Hall concert Thursday night, that her grandmother–also her sister and fellow Sweet Honey singer Aisha Kahlil’s–told them how she prayed for “generations to come,” and how the sisters thereby “fell into prayer.”
And so now have several generations of Sweet Honey fans, as the historic African-American female a cappella group–now 43 years old–has handed down its own musical prayers, the latest being the new album #LoveInEvolution, of which “Somebody Prayed for Me” is the lead track.
But there were a couple noticeable differences this time at Carnegie Hall, where Sweet Honey has played countless times over the years. Since its last album, the two-CD A Tribute: Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center (2013), longtime member Ysaye Maria Barnwell departed, leaving fellow longtimers Casel and Kahlil, founding members Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson, and longtime sign language interpreter Shirley Childress. But in keeping with that release’s pioneering addition of backing musicians, Thursday night’s concert featured “Honey-man” electric and acoustic bassist Romeir Mendez, who also plays on the new album.
Changes notwithstanding, the operative word for Sweet Honey in the Rock, as evidenced in the new album’s title, remains love—“in the active sense,” noted Maillard, by way of introducing her thrilling recital of the gospel standard “I Was Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor,” which Sweet Honey included in its 1998 25th anniversary album …Twenty-Five….
Another high point of the first half of the concert was the new album’s “The Living Waters,” written by Kahlil and performed by Sweet Honey with guest violinist Regina Carter after the composer noted that despite the life-giving need for water, in many cases the most you can do now is look at it. During the performance Kahlil rotated an ocean drum, producing gently crashing wave-like sounds from the shifting of enclosed metal beads. Mendez added a rolling rhythm while Carter plucked the strings to jibe with Sweet Honey’s drip-like vocal droplets.
The set closed with “IDK, But I’m LOL!,” also from #LoveInEvolution, and when they returned, Sweet Honey, at first garbed in various black outfits, came out in stunning multicolored skirts and varying blue tops, the skirts with differing circle patterns of gold, red and blue. They first sang “Ella’s Song,” the freedom anthem written by Sweet Honey founder Bernice Johnson Reagon and inspired by civil rights movement unsung hero Ella Baker—but this only set up the concert’s most riveting performance.
“We all know what’s happening in this country,” said Robinson, and then Casel did a slow, stylized dance to the front of the stage, and laid down what appeared to be an African blanket or fabric. Then from the back of the auditorium came the sound of a trumpet, guest Terence Blanchard’s, to be precise. He sauntered down the aisle slowly as he soloed a blues, stopping every few steps to bend over and coax a new color. He improvised into “Amazing Grace” by the time he reached the stage, Childress somehow signing the melody as Casel tapped out the cadence on a tambourine, Maillard on a wooden board on her lap, Mendez on the wood of his upright bass. It was the perfect preface to Robinson’s “Second Line Blues,” from #LoveInEvolution and concerning the recent spate of killings in the U.S. and the disregard for human life—the title coming from the second line funeral procession.
Her sisters humming behind her, Robinson read the names of unarmed citizens killed by police, of others slaughtered in churches and schools, each name on a card that she dropped onto the blanket laid down by Casel. As the pace quickened she read them faster and faster, throwing them down with barely restrained fury, the sisters now wailing in tandem with Blanchard’s horn–Robinson finally balling up the blanket and the names and bringing it back to Blanchard as the song ended with the funeral cadence.
And then Casel turned it around. Even if you don’t have “100,000 people who follow you,” she said, maintaining the hashtag social-networking theme of #LoveIn Evolution, you can still wake up in the morning and smile at family, offer an encouraging word, pick up a piece of paper.
“We can all do something,” she said. “There are a gazillion things each of us can do to change things. We all see where we’re going, so we are each charged with giving love–the only thing I know that can conquer hate.”
She then led the group in “Give Love,” which she wrote on Sweet Honey’s 2008 album collaboration with Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, Go in Grace, and which the group made into a video last year to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” from the Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center tribute to Simone, Odetta and Miriam Makeba, gave Kahlil the chance to showcase her fabulous bird-like scatting.
“What a journey!” marveled Maillard, and sure enough, Sweet Honey in the Rock has marvelously moved beyond merely the most important African-American music culture ensemble to what is essentially an art music band of the highest order.
They ended with the “Operator/Jesus on the Mainline/I Don’t Know What You Come to Do” gospel blend from # LoveInEvolution, and “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” its grand finale having Blanchard and Carter on opposite ends of Sweet Honey with the gals dancing ecstatically in between as the guest instrumentalists called and responded until Blanchard, a true gentleman, conceded.
[The Examiner wrote the CD liner notes for …Twenty-Five… and Sweet Honey In The Rock: A Tribute-Live! Jazz At Lincoln Center.]