From Verdi to Little Milton: Soul Music Throughout the Centuries

Photo Courtesy of Stax Music Academy (Stax Museum of American Soul Music) via The Boston Globe on

“Wattstax Revisited,” presented by students from Stax Music Academy, honored the fortieth anniversary of Stax Records’ 1972 concert of soul music and soul-lifting.  Stax Records has encountered financial ups and downs, but the label’s cultural legacy was flying Tuesday night courtesy of the music of artists like Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers, performed in original arrangements by the young singers and instrumentalists onstage at the Berklee Performance Center (and which this blogger was able to experience courtesy of his employer).

The performers’ excitement was palpable, yet youthful energy only goes so far: this ensemble was expressive and strong as well as enthusiastic.  Grammy-winning saxophonist and Stax CEO Kirk Whalum was able to play alongside his students without having to carry them.  Attendees dancing in their seats and eventually in the aisles seemed like a foregone conclusion given the group’s galvanizing choreography and engaging stage demeanor.

Of course great music (ideally) drives musical stagecraft.  This blogger kept coming back to the earthy vocal and instrumental textures, in concise yet powerful arrangements, and lyrics of late night love, old-fashioned heartbreak, and, in short, the best of times as well as the worst:

Instrumental solos incorporated some dense jazz phrases as part of more visceral, direct storytelling that modern jazz was just beginning to transcend (read, forget) when these tunes were first recorded.  References to classic blues and gospel ranged from underlying to overt but were never absent.

Theatricality was as much a part of the music as the show, in big displays of big emotions crafted in soaring vocals, choruses and ensembles, with juicy horn chords,  popping bass lines and an infectious beat all in constant state of tension and release.  Vocal and instrumental confidence is just as crucial to the music.  Soul music isn’t all about technique, but the sheer power to play and sing has to be there.  It’s hard not to notice and be floored by strong voices soaring to the heavens and sticking around to toss off melismas and pentatonic runs, or subtle but telling touches like the quicksilver sax and flute cascades behind the singers.

Display,  theatricality, and grand emotions orchestrated to maximize emotional impact on an audience: take out the flatted thirds and sevenths and replace the horns with strings, and it begins to seem (if not sound) a lot like opera.

It might take Verdi‘s ears a few measures to acclimate to the harmonies, rhythms and instrumentation of soul music, but the godfather of late Romantic opera would have appreciated this style’s ability to reach and pull at an audience.  Verdi knew all about emotional blackmail:

For that matter, a lot of music consigned to the classical bin and connotations of cultural capital and refinement shares those goals.  Listening to Baroque instrumental composer Valentini’s works the next day, telling their sad little epic and pitting plaintive soloists against a lush orchestra and an ominous repeating bass line, the distance between centuries and cultures became much smaller:

G. Valentini: Op. 7, Concerto No. 11, I. Largo

Melody and rhythm, crafted smartly and passionately: some things never go out of style.


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