Randall Goosby is an up-and-coming violinist, a protégé of Itzhak Perlman. Goosby’s debut album, Roots, was released in June.
The album is primarily built around works by Black composers, including William Grant Still, Florence Price, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. However, it also includes pieces by George Gershwin and Antonín Dvořák. All the material is performed either solo or duo, featuring bassist Xavier Dubois Foley or pianist Zhu Wang, depending on the track.
The album begins with “Shelter Island,” a violin-bass duo composed by Foley that nods to — OK, wallows in — bluegrass and the blues. The melody has a celebratory, folk/hoedown quality, and develops a powerful swing at times, and the two instruments intertwine beautifully. There’s a great video, too:
After that, we get the three-part Blue/s Forms, running just about eight minutes in all and composed by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, which was dedicated to violinist Sanford Allen, the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic. It’s frankly hard to believe that this is a solo violin performance; there are several moments, particularly in the opening “Plain Blue/s,” where Goosby strikes notes that seem to come from a second instrument. It’s a head-spinning listening experience, and the combination of classical melodic structure with bent and mournful blue notes, and hillbilly string band phrases in the closing “Jettin’ Blue/s,” is striking.
The album includes another three-part composition, William Grant Still‘s Suite for Violin and Piano. Each of its movements is named for a work by a sculptor from the Harlem Renaissance: Richard Barthe’s African Dancer, Sargent Johnson’s Mother and Child, and Augusta Savage’s Gamin. It was written in 1943, but has the feel of something from decades earlier, befitting its inspirations. “African Dancer” rises from music that could have soundtracked a Ken Burns documentary about 1920s Harlem — pleasant, but generic — to a rip-roaring climax. “Mother and Child,” naturally, is a delicate ballad, which allows Goosby to demonstrate the astonishing fluidity of his playing; the notes glide together like a synth or a theremin, the bow never seeming to rise from the strings. There are some surprises here, though; certain passages have the feel of Chinese court music. “Gamin” is practically a vignette, just over two minutes long, and it has a bouncing rhythm set by Wang, over which Goosby soars joyously.
Goosby performs three Florence Price compositions: “Adoration,” recorded on violin for the first time here, and two “Fantasies,” recorded for the first time, period. “Adoration” is a fairly simple and romantic song; it would be quite easy for someone to set lyrics to, and Goosby and Wang perform it in a swooning, 19th century parlor style. “Fantasie No. 1,” by contrast, is a multi-phase eruption of emotion. It starts out stark and almost Balkan, the violin scraping the sky like a black mountain as the piano cowers beneath. It leaps into a twirling dance, with a little bit of “helpless woman tied to the railroad tracks” added; then we slow down to watch the sun set on the plains. Then, in the piece’s final minute, we return to silent-film dramatics, piano and violin rocketing past each other in swooping arcs and finishing with a Beethoven-esque flourish. “Fantasie No. 2” is equally over-the-top. Based on this evidence, Price was not a subtle composer; she favored sweeping gestures and vernacular melodies, all in service of drawing a visceral response from the listener, and these performances honor that intention.
The album concludes with Antonín Dvořák‘s four-part Violin Sonatina. The piece was written in 1893, just before Dvořák left the United States, and was intended to be playable by his children. It’s very straightforward, borrowing some of its structure and tones from Native American music and Black spirituals, while also possessing a romantic, Eastern European sensibility (he re-uses bits of melody from earlier pieces). Goosby and Wang blast through the four short movements, just under 20 minutes of music in all, with passion and skill.
This is an excellent record, well-organized and conceptually coherent. All the individual pieces are enjoyable, even if I could live without the excerpts from Porgy and Bess, and they work well together. I’ll be looking out for Randall Goosby‘s name going forward, and you should be too.
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