Proclamation Review - A Panel Discussion, A Concert and an interview celebrating the Black Composer

On Friday evening, April 29, 2016, Fulcrum Point New Music Project presented a spectacular New Art Music event entitled “Proclamation, the Black Composer Speaks”, based on the treatise entitled “The Black Composer Speaks” edited by David Baker, to whom the event was dedicated. The concert took place at The Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Avenue, a favorite and acoustically well-favored Chicagoland musical venue.

Kahil El'Zabar and Stephen Burns

This was more than just a terrific night’s entertainment, however. It was an extravaganza of sound devoted to showcasing the composition skills of" three generations of African American artists, each masters of their genres". The strikingly talented group of musicians included impresario Stephen Burns, trumpet; Kathryn Flum, flute; Joel Benway, french horn; Jeff Handley, percussion; Allison Attar, harp; James Sanders, violin; Carmen Kassinger, violin; David Moss, viola; and Christian Dillingham, bass.

The night opened with the first stark and singular notes of the world premiere of “In Our Own House”, a haunting and elegant masterpiece of  “call and response” by Alvin Singleton. Next came the hot, sexy and improvisational “Voodoo Dolls” by violinist Jessie Montgomery, whose playing was an inspiration. Jeffrey Mumford’s devotionally introspective world premiere, “becoming”, lovingly conducted by Stephen Burns, with the ultra-talented Winston Choi at the piano, augmented and encompassed by 9 other instruments closed the first half of the program and was a joy to hear, passionate and intellectual.

The New Art Music Event

After the intermission, the evening was given over to the direction, skill and exceptional charisma of the  Chicago composer/ multi- instrumentalist Kahil El'Zabar. The set began with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, 1964, whose sweet, strongly insistent and famously familiar hard bop-jazz sounds swept the hall.  Then the evening was crowned by almost eerily dramatic and intense New Art Music premiered by The Kahil El’Zabar quartet. The sound was irresistible- it made you want to chant, call and cry, get to your feet and dance it out. With Robert Baabe Irving 111 on piano, Dennis Winslett on saxophone and Harrison Bankhead on bass, the funky, smart symphonic jazz was composed, conducted, strutted, vocalized and ethereally percussed on Cajon, Kalimba and drums by El’Zabar, rhythm past master. The pieces resonated with suffering and love: majestic, embraced, transcended.

Kahil El'Zabar creates the rhythm


 The day before the concert, the Dusable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place, Chicago, hosted a panel discussion and question and answer session devoted to these issues, “The Black Composer Speaks: A Roundtable Discussion on Diversity, Inclusion and Access in Experimental New Music”. The topic could not have been more cogent or timely, coming on the heels of ADA 25, the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, celebrated throughout the city in an explosion of creative pograms. The vastly experienced and distinguished panel was led by Saudia Davis, of Smartypants are Leaders, a social entrepreneur, and consisted of Stephen Burns, artistic director, Fulcrum Point; Kahil El’Zabar, artistic director, Chicago Academy of Music; Rami Gabriel, fellow at the Center for Black Music Research; Jeffrey Mumford, composer and educator; Roberto Quinones, Managing Creative Director, Chicago Academy of Music; Seth Parker Woods, composer and cellist; and Augusta Read Thomas, composer and University Professor of Composition, University of Chicago.

The musicians after the premiere of "becoming"

This reviewer had the opportunity to interview Stephen Burns after the panel discussion and concert. His erudite and concentrated comments are revealed, in pertinent part, as follows:

Burns and El’Zabar have been colleagues and friends for some ten+ years.  They had both been touring a lot and wanted to open up a dialogue about bridging their forms of art. They share a vision of what music should be and what music can accomplish in society. It can be a catalyst and a source of goodness in a time of negativity. When they met, Kahil still hadn’t gained full acceptance in serious art music composition. The two men wanted to create a “new sound platform” with which to celebrate life.

Dennis Winslett, Harrison Bankhead and Kahil El'Zabar

The panel discussion at DuSable considered many important aspects and “irregularities” in the world of emerging and recognized musical talent. It also celebrated, as did the concert, “the richness of black music”, the mixture of classical, blues, abstract intellectual music, neo-classical music, West African inspired music, and more.

Harrison Bankhead

What Burns loved about the discussion and the concert was “the powerful sense of good will”, the honesty, the sense of clarity engendered by the participants in both events. The most important message he garnered from the panel was that” we are at a time of healthy disruption where systemic institutional racism is being jarred out of it’s place of security”. The panel provided a place where people could talk about their “inability to gain access to the conversation”. They also talked about issues like the interaction of art in society, the juxtaposition of tradition and innovation, and necessary topics such as funding. People must continue to live and take care of their families even while they create art!

Stephen Burns and Kahil El'Zabar

Finally, the panel spent considerable time discussing one of the focal points of concern at Fulcrum Point: how to reset a lifelong commitment to art and music through our cultural institutions and our educational systems. We need to address how the historical canon of music, handed down orally, can be recognized, hailed and preserved in this electronic age. One way, certainly, is with the types of multi-disciplinary, multi-focused programs this organization and its attendant creative hosts and talent have been and are offering.

Kahil El'Zabar

For information on these issues and to participate in these great programs, go to the Fulcrum Point website


Photos courtesy of Elliot Mandel 

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