If It Sounds Good, It Is Good! | November 2017
American Originals had its first incarnation in 2015, and has developed into one of the most exciting undertakings of my career. The project was born out of an enormous admiration for Stephen Foster, one of our country’s most influential songwriters, who developed his unique voice while living near the bustling Port of Cincinnati. We set out to create new arrangements, both respectful of the traditions in which they were created, and with a modern touch, then engaged some of today’s most creative singer/songwriters to deliver the goods. When we took stock of the amazing talent we had gathered, including Rosanne Cash, Joe Henry, Over the Rhine, Aoife O’Donovan and Dom Flemons, we weren’t about to let the ephemeral moment slip away in concert. Thus, the the first live recording of the Cincinnati Pops was born, captured within the walls of Music Hall over the course of a frigid January weekend. American Originals climbed to No. 8 on the Billboard charts and received acclaim from such outlets as NPR, No Depression, Paste Magazine and Rolling Stone.
Now, two years later, we are back in our beautifully renovated Music Hall, and present a second “volume” of uniquely American songs that define our national musical ethos. It’s no secret that I am a huge jazz devotee, and have always been fascinated by the early roots of jazz from the dawn of the 20th century. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War in 1918, the American popular music scene exploded. Styles we now call jazz, blues, country and bluegrass all had roots in African American musical traditions, that turned mainstream American musical expression on its ear. “The Great War” was the first to utilize large numbers of African American troops, who earned and received in France the respect and dignity of the local populace that few of those soldiers had ever received in the USA. Blues and Ragtime styles performed by soldiers in black regimental bands became all the rage in Europe, and when the fighting was over, American music came home with those soldiers. Emboldened by their active defense of democracy abroad and the admiration of sophisticated European music lovers, African American composers and musicians began a musical revolution on this side of the Atlantic. With the burgeoning recording industry and beginnings of radio, many of the biggest hits of the day remain within our cannon of popular standards. Sure, we’ll be performing classics by Irving Berlin and George M Cohan, but also African American composers Shelton Brooks, Will Marion Cook, Eubie Blake, W.C. Handy, James P. Johnson and Spencer Williams. You may not recognize their names, but you’ll know their songs—they are the bedrock of the American Century of music.
In creating this program, we collaborated with our guest artists to select songs not just as a tribute, but as a personal expression of their own artistry. Most everything has been newly arranged for this concert and gives a contemporary feel to these songs’ traditional sound. Rhiannon Giddens, founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has since struck out on her own, resuscitating and performing African American roots music from the south and Appalachian regions around the world. She is also the recent recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award. Pokey LaFarge brings his rollicking energy to the stage, and a deep reverence for musical traditions of the early 20th Century. This is my second time working with the Steep Canyon Rangers (the first was at Hollywood Bowl). I love these guys! You may have caught them in performance or recordings with Steve Martin; the “Steeps” are bluegrass aficionados with ensemble and solo playing that is jaw-dropping.
Like our last American Originals, YOU are part of our performance, as we create our first live recording at the newly renovated Music Hall. We may ask you to do some singing and plenty of whooping and hollering as we create this musical party together! The recording will be released in Fall 2018, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, and the beginning of America’s Jazz Age. Enjoy!