Bassist Avery Sharpe honors Sojourner Truth


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Avery Sharpe believes in music as a form of communication -- one expressing ideas and feelings that perhaps do not translate well to words. It's in that spirit that the accomplished bassist and composer wrote the 11 songs on his latest album, dedicated to the wisdom and struggle of Sojourner Truth, the former slave, dedicated abolitionist and advocate for women's rights.

Sharpe's "Aint I a Woman?" project, a jazz sextet highlighting these songs, will play a free concert at Williams College's Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on Friday.

"I'm trying to put out a positive vibe, a positive message, and just inspire. That's what I think music should be. Of course, music should entertain, but I feel that an original concept or reason that man came up with music was he or she trying to communicate with something outside of themselves," Sharpe said in a telephone interview, "with gods or spirits or each other. I try to keep that concept going no matter what I do or what I write. You're trying to communicate."

Sharpe is a musician in residence this semester at Williams, working with its music de part ment and its Africana Studies department, for which he created a course called John Coltrane and the Revolutionary Traditions in African-American Music.

Along with Sharpe on acoustic bass, in Friday's concert Onaje Allan Gumbs will perform on piano, drummer Yoron Israel on drums and Jimmy Greene on saxophone, with vocalist Jeri Brown and trumpeter Duane Eubanks. A slideshow will accompany the music.

The stand-out item on Sharpe's resume is a 20-year tenure in the quartet of the great pianist McCoy Tyner, with whom Coltrane recorded some of his best-loved work. Sharpe has also worked with greats like Archie Shepp and Art Blakey, and his composition credits include a concerto for jazz trio and orchestra commissioned by Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

"Avery Sharpe is a legend whose work continues to evolve and amaze. Anyone who made 20 albums with McCoy Tyner could be forgiven if he rested on that history, but not Sharpe," Berkshires Jazz president Ed Bride wrote in an email. Bride also pointed to Sharpe's repeat appearances at the Litchfield Jazz Festival and work as a faculty member at the festival's jazz camp.

"A three-peat at Litchfield is a rarity," Bride wrote, "and serves as a testament to all the things that make him great: versatility, performance virtuosity, composing, educating, and a drive to excel."

A few of the songs on "So journer Truth: ‘Aint I a woman?' " incorporate the words of Truth, who gave herself that name after escaping slavery and successfully suing a former slavemaster for custody of her son. But most aim to evoke aspects of her life and times through mood and song structure.

The centerpiece title track, in which Brown offers a spirited recital of parts of Sojourner's signature 1851 speech, is actually an adaptation of a gospel-tinged song Sharpe wrote to honor his mother.

"NYC 1800's" evokes the bitter epi sode in Sojourner's life when her son, 10 years after she won his freedom, set out on a whaling vessel, and she never heard from again. (Three of his letters to his mother survive, but he apparently did not receive her replies and mistakenly concluded that she had rejected him, Sharpe said.)

"[I wanted] just to get an idea of what New York was like at that time," Sharpe explained. "A lot of things are exciting because it's a big city, but how do you feel when you leave that city after you experienced tragedy during that time?"

Truth was originally enslaved in Ulster County, in New York, and later settled in Nort hamp ton. Accounts of her impromptu 1851 address differ widely, but a version published more than a decade later gives a refrain -- "Aint I a woman?" -- she used to underline the dual hardships faced by female African-Americans in 19th-century America.

She also dictated a memoir, published under the title "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave."

Truth recruited black soldiers to join the Union army, and she waged an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get the federal government to allocate land to former slaves.

"When we think about African-American leaders throughout history, we think of the males. and if we think of women, we think of Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks. Those are great figures, but there are others," Sharpe said. "To dedicate her whole life to being an abolitionist and fighting for women's rights is pretty extraordinary."

What: Bassist Avery Sharpe performs ‘Ain't I a Woman'

Where: Brooks-Rogers hall, Williams College, Williamstown

When: Friday at 8 p.m.

Admission: Free



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