In a socio-politically charged year when our understanding of African American history has been in the spotlight and challenged like few times in the past, music can serve as a great instructor. If you think you know American Music, veteran NY based classical pianist and well-traveled concert performer Jeni Slotchiver invites you to open the door to the past deeper than you ever might have imagined on American Heritage – an extraordinary work paying homage primarily to African American composers of the 19th and early 20th Century whose works laid the foundations of later forms of music like jazz, blues and R&B.
To offer a wider view into these eras, she balances slave songs with Union Army hymns, sea shanties and secular dances and spirituals, some of which include snippets of tunes that we may be more familiar with (i.e. Margaret Bonds’ “Troubled Water,” based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Running elegantly and rhythmically over the ivories as if her mystical melodic hands were opening the doors to a treasured but often overlooked expanse of time, Slotchiver takes us from the dramatic swells of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s “Deep River, Op. 59, No. 10” (1904) and a spirited romp through the darker emotions and great moments of vibrant joy of Harry Thacker Burleigh’s six tune suite “From the Southland” (1907) through the folkloric charms of William Still’s “Swanee River” (1939).
It might help to have Google or Wikipedia handy to look up these composers and the others whose works she brings to life – Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Florence B. Price, Robert Nathaniel Dett and Frederick Rzewski, whose very familiar “Down by the Riverside” Slotchiver infuses with equal parts gusto and whimsy. The physical product also has compelling liner notes that sketch out some of the details.
The pianist is a splendid tour guide lighting our path, but once we’re enlightened, it’s up to us to dig deeper to understand the glorious history of our country that sometimes gets lost in the cacophony of racial injustice and contemporary static.