Cross That River: A Tale of the Black West @ 59E59 - New York City Article
“Cross That River: A Tale of the Black West”
Music and Lyrics by Allan Harris; Book by Allan & Pat Harris
59 E 59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street, 212 279-4200
Through Sunday (December 31)
Best known as one of the major jazz vocalists (and occasional songwriter) of the current generation, Allan Harris has long also pursued a dual fascination with both the history of the American west and his own legacy as an African-American. His long-germinating musical work, Cross That River deftly incorporates both of those ideas and a great deal more besides, in an ambitious attempt to capture the black experience of the west (which, as we know, was somehow omitted from virtually all the history books, movies, and popular fiction) in musical form. In its current production, Cross That River isn’t quite full-blown musical theater - although you can see that’s where it’s going - but more like a song cycle with narration and occasional dialogue. The two-hour piece is performed by Mr. Harris along with three singer-actors (Maya Azucena, Carolyn Leonhart, Jeffery Lewis) and a five piece band. Mr. Harris’s original songs are catchy, in a foot-stomping, toe-tapping kind of a way, and evoke the actual folk music of the old west without sounding derivative, mixing in elements of blues, country, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, along with a few traditional waltzes and at least one authentic cowboy polka. (The instrumental passages occasionally suggest the rugged postmodern western minimalism of Carter Burwell’s scores for the Coen Brothers, as in True Grit). In this tale of a former slave who escapes the plantation to become a cowboy, you can really feel the chains and oppression of enslavement and the exhilaration of his ride to freedom; even though the performers hardly move, they effectively make you viscerally feel the notion of the flight to the west as a spiritual passage to salvation.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)