The first influence that Christian McBride mentioned at the Merriam Theater on Saturday night was not one of the four civil-rights icons paid homage in his epic suite
The Movement Revisited
. Appropriately for a hometown performance, the bassist/composer instead began the evening by talking about his grandmother, whose hoard of Ebony and Jet magazine back issues provided his earliest introduction to African American history.
He made fun of her pack-rat tendencies back then, McBride concluded, but now has her to thank for planting the seeds of his most ambitious work as a composer to date. The Movement Revisited features the words of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., set to the music of McBride's big band and a full gospel choir.
Each movement began with one of the performance's guest speakers intoning the words of that movement's honoree over minimal accompaniment, focused on McBride's ever-eloquent bass, before painting a musical portrait of its subject.
The piece began with an overture featuring a round-robin selection of spoken texts over a gradually building minor-key pulse, eventually erupting into roiling rhythms and a darting melody while the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale alternated the words "freedom" and "struggle." Poet Sonia Sanchez, in the role of Rosa Parks, recounted the story of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, which was then dramatized in a bluesy vocal showcase.
Actor Samuel Stricklen took on the role of Malcolm X, whose words were taken from his post-pilgrimage period rather than his more strident early speeches. His movement was reminiscent of the period's "fire music," with tenor saxophonist Ron Blake emitting Coltrane-like blues howls.
Dion Graham lightened the mood as Ali, whose pointed political statements always contained a heavy dose of pugilistic wit. These were punctuated with solo drum outbursts, evoking the performance of beatnik poetry. McBride illustrated the Champ's swagger by indulging his penchant for James Brown funk, with the choir throwing punches in the air while singing "rumble in the jungle."
Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech was accompanied by a militaristic march beat, building to a joyous gospel celebration spotlighting choir director J.D. Steele. The piece concluded with "Apotheosis: November 4th, 2008," with all four narrators reciting Barack Obama's election-night victory speech over a triumphal fanfare, celebrating the movement's ultimate achievement - and ending on a hopeful note, before the setbacks and contention of the next eight years revealed themselves.