Anthony Davis: X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X
Known to jazz aficionados as a pianist with a string of adventurous albums on Gramavision spanning the 1980s, Anthony Davis has devoted much of his career to classical composition. More broadly, like many of his peers and forebears, he has called into question the racialized boundary that separates the jazz and classical worlds. His opera on the life of Malcolm X could not be more fitting as a subject. The work premiered in Philadelphia in 1985, and Davis recorded the music for Gramavision in 1989 with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (released in 1992, the year Spike Lee released his biopic X). This new album with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) stems from an updated production staged in Detroit in 2022 and slated for the Metropolitan Opera in 2023. (Davis’ previous collaboration with BMOP is Notes From the Underground from 2014. His Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, The Central Park Five, premiered in 2019.) The social context of Davis’ X, and for that matter Terence Blanchard’s 2022 Met premiere, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (the first opera by a Black composer in the Met’s history), is a compelling civil rights story in itself. There is a long legacy of African American opera composers, Scott Joplin and James P. Johnson among them, whose association with “low” Black popular music served to discredit them in the eyes of the “serious” music culture of the time. Without access or resources, these Black composers faced tremendous difficulty getting their stunningly innovative, historically important operatic works performed and heard. Davis and his contemporaries are part of this legacy, and it’s inscribed on many levels in the music itself. Davis’ gripping music for X—with story by brother Christopher Davis and libretto by cousin Thulani Davis—churns with rhythmic intensity and timbral variation, drawing on operatic conventions while expanding on possibilities of instrumentation and ensemble interplay. The massed voices of the Odyssey Opera Chorus (with Gil Rose conducting the BMOP) are extraordinarily powerful as they tangle with Davis’ dense thicket of harmonies. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines and soprano Whitney Morrison, in the title roles of Malcolm and Betty Shabazz, take inspired flight on their respective arias. The sound is excellent, clear, and distortion-free even at the loudest crests in volume, from instruments and voices alike. When Davis uses trombone, trumpet, bass clarinet, and tenor/soprano saxophone as improvising elements at key moments, it’s coming from a place deep in the jazz tradition.