Jason Moran and his trio will play Dave Brubeck’s ‘The Gates of Justice’ at the Fillmore Detroit on Sunday. / Shaul Schwarz Reportage
By Mark Stryker
One of the highlights of last summer’s Detroit Jazz Festival was a concert performance of Dave and Iola Brubeck’s civil rights-era musical “The Real Ambassadors” — the first complete reading since the 1962 premiere. The staging proved that the work’s balance of humor and progressive politics have aged surprising well, and that a number of rewarding but overlooked Brubeck melodies deserve wider currency.
Now the festival’s artistic director Chris Collins has organized another ambitious Brubeck revival, “The Gates of Justice” (1969), an hour-long oratorio for choir, brass-and-percussion orchestra, jazz trio and vocal soloists from both the African-American and Jewish traditions. Pianist Jason Moran, a leading-edge voice in contemporary jazz, will anchor the ensemble with his trio, Bandwagon, but also offer a set of civil rights-themed music with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Eric McPherson.
Brubeck, who died in 2012 at age 91, was a profound humanist who believed deeply in the values of freedom, racial equality, religious and ethnic diversity and tolerance. “The Gates of Justice” emerged from an era in which he had begun exploring large-scale forms and forces and incorporating texts that reinforced his social concerns. In “Gates of Justice” Brubeck drew on a wide range of sources, including quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., biblical and Hebrew texts and African-American spirituals. The late ’60s were a time of rising tension between blacks and Jews, and Brubeck sought to address these issues directly.
“The essential message of ‘The Gates of Justice’ is the brotherhood of man,” the composer wrote in his original program notes. “Concentrating on the historic and spiritual parallels of Jews and American blacks, I hoped through the juxtaposition and amalgamation of a variety of musical styles to construct a bridge upon which the universal theme of brotherhood could be communicated. The soloists are composite characters. The cantor tenor, whose melodies are rooted in the Hebraic modes, represents the prophetic voice of Hebrew tradition. The black baritone, whose melodies stem from the blues and spirituals, is the symbol of contemporary man, and a reminder to men of all faiths that divine mandates are still waiting to be fulfilled.”
In addition to Moran’s trio, the performers include baritone soloist Emery Stephens and Alberto Mizrahi, a world-renowned cantor and interpreter of Jewish music who contributed to the original performances of “Gates of Justice.” Conductor Norah Duncan IV directs the ensemble and 60-voice choir. Moran, known for his adventurous pianism and conceptualism, is a particularly fascinating choice because he connects the dots between traditional and avant-garde musical ideas and because references to African-American history and culture are so prevalent within his oeuvre. Symbols are important, and uniting a leading black musician of our era with Brubeck, who was sometimes saddled with a Great-White-Hope stigma, sends a powerful message all on its own.
3:30 p.m. Sunday, Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward. 800-745-3000.www.livenation.com. $10.