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On Leyla McCalla, Musical Art and the Venn Diagram

by Holley Dey               ©2014 On Tap Blog  all rights reserved

Have been thinking about the relationship between art and mathematics recently; on Saturday night it all came together.  I think that there are likely as many definitions of “art” as there are artists, as many definitions of “artist” as there are critics.  Most will agree that artistic expression is powerful and powered – powered by creativity and originality.  Not all artists are musicians; not all musicians are artists.  Most musicians and many artists are accomplished entertainers, but not all.  It’s when music is given artistic expression by a talented live performer that the audience finds the sweet spot.  I lived happily in that spot on Saturday evening when Leyla McCalla took the stage at New Haven’s Cafe Nine, featuring several selections from her debut solo album Vari-Colored Songs.

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Subtitled A tribute to Langston Hughes, the album was five years in the making. The content draws from Leyla’s Haitian heritage as well as her deep connection to the work of American poet, novelist and playwright Hughes. Eight of the fourteen songs on the disc interpret Hughes’ words through music, music written and/or arranged by McCalla. The remaining songs are either traditional Haitian folk tunes arranged by the artist, or her own original work.

Offered through McCalla’s voice, the poet’s words are simple but moving, charged with quiet emotion and wry humor.  The album tracks feature acoustic arrangements that include Leyla on lead vocals, cello, tenor banjo and guitar.  Her former Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmates provide occasional support with Rhiannon Giddens on harmony vocals and Hubby Jenkins on guitar and bones.

On tour Saturday evening, Leyla was accompanied by fellow New Orleans musicians Marshall Baker on fiddle and Taylor Smith on upright bass and triangle.  McCalla played cello, sometimes with bow, but more often plucking and strumming the fingerboard strings with powerful hands.  Her vocals were simple and unadorned, flowing as naturally as the music, and imbued with subtle expression.  The set list included new original tunes in addition to selections from Vari-Colored Songs.

Highlights of the evening included “Heart of Gold”, lead track from the newly released album with music by McCalla , words by L. Hughes.  The official music video below shares the warm urgency of the melody, the history and irony in the words.  “I wonder why red clay’s so red and Georgia skies so blue.  I wonder why it’s yes to me, but yes sir, sir to you.”  Like the album track, “Lonely House” began with an a capella introduction, a lonely vocal matched to the song’s mood and message, and ended in a quiet voice, gently trailing away….  “Too Blue” was given an upbeat bluesy delivery and a wink as poet Hughes considers whether to end his misery,finally concluding “But I ain’t got bullet nor gun, and I’m too blue to look for one.”

There’s no doubt that Leyla McCalla is a talented musician.  She is a classically trained cellist, graduated from New York University, and schooled in traditional jazz and Creole music on the streets of New Orleans.  There’s no doubt that she is a gifted artist; Vari-Colored Songs marries the art of Langston Hughes with her own, lending a new voice to his jazz poetry, bringing its history and emotion to a new audience.  Her live performance is consistent with the album cuts, confident yet unassuming, warm and inclusive.  Leyla McCalla has found the sweet spot.

On a side note, the physical album is beautifully presented; a comprehensive insert includes her own biography and Langston Hughes’, song lyrics and musician credits.  Simply put, this is a stunning debut.

Highly recommended.


Giveaway:  To win a copy of Vari-Colored Songs: A Langston Hughes Tribute, leave a comment below by Friday, February 21.  One winner will be selected at random from all entries and notified on February 22.  Good luck!

One Comment Post a comment
  1. ontapblog #

    Thanks, Holley. I had the pleasure of seeing Leyla with Carolina Chocolate Drops and was very impressed. She is an accomplished artist and her tribute to Langston Hughes is a great legacy for her to build on. Hope to see her one day soon. Maybe this summer in a festival? Hope so. Thanks again.

    February 18, 2014

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