BRANFORD MARSALIS MEETS MA RAINEY By Peter Filichia
“The blues help you to get out of bed in the morning. This’d be an empty world without the blues.”
So says the title character of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, August Wilson’s first Broadway play – but certainly not his last. The 1984 classic is now a film available on Netflix.
If you agree that we would indeed have an empty world without the blues, follow Ma’s lead with her next line: “I take that emptiness and try to fill it.” So when you need to get out of bed in the morning, the soundtrack to MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM will certainly get you up and about.
The new recording captures the sound of the Roaring Twenties when the real Ma Rainey roared. As the film shows, her roaring was not confined to the microphone. In her opening song “Deep Moaning Blues,” the lyric “Crazy as I can be” has extra resonance. By 1927, when the play takes place, Ma Rainey was quite the diva who drove other people crazy.
Aside from Ma’s insisting that her nephew be part of her recording – which brings with it its own substantial problems – she’s hardly maternal. She’ll eventually show she does have a heart, but there are plenty of hardened arteries around it.
Providing most of the film’s music is Branford Marsalis, America’s favorite saxophonist (unless Lisa Simpson is). With the 2010 revival of FENCES, Wilson’s first Pulitzer Prize-winner, he showed Broadway that he was quite the composer, too; his score received a Tony nomination.
George C. Wolfe, the film’s director, recruited Marsalis to compose sixteen of the soundtrack’s twenty-four selections. While Wolfe was at it, he also enlisted Savion Glover, his collaborator on BRING IN ‘DA NOISE, BRING IN ‘DA FUNK, the revue for which they both won Tonys. The sound of tap was needed for the joyously Joplinesque “Sandman,” and who better to contribute that than Glover?
The film takes us to Ma’s recording session where she’ll be accompanied by four players: Levee on horn, Cutler on trombone, Slow Drag on bass and Toledo at the piano. However, for the film Marsalis employed almost five dozen instrumentalists including four violas.
There’s another Viola on hand – the one surnamed Davis. Her performance here has made movie critics include in their reviews the words “Academy,” “nomination,” and “award.”
Casting Davis as Ma was a brilliant move, and not merely because she’s a phenomenally gifted actress with one Oscar and two Tonys to her credit. Davis actually resembles Ma, especially after being outfitted with gold front teeth that may remind you of the choppers that Richard “Jaws” Kiel flashed in two James Bond movies.
That said, much of Ma’s singing was provided by Maxayn Lewis, an established pro whose career started as an Ikette with Ike and Tina Turner. She beautifully replicates Rainey’s distinctive contralto. Nevertheless, on “Those Dogs of Mine,” that’s all Davis, all the time. Her growl at song’s end is spot-on and great fun.
Rainey was also a songwriter, so four of her compositions were included. In addition to those two named above, there’s the title song and “Hear Me Talking to You,” which is so nice, the recording offers it twice: once as an instrumental, once as a Lewis vocal.
Both of them offer plenty of double entendres. No – make that singular entendres that leave no doubt of their intentions. Even if you’re a bit on the naïve side, the way the cornet man and his silver-plated wah-wah mute growls out his notes makes clear what Ma means.
You might assume that Gertrude Pridgett (1886-1939) became known as Ma because she was named “The Mother of the Blues” (and rightly so, according to many musicologists). No, “Ma” came from her marrying an entertainer known Will “Pa” Rainey. After she took her husband’s last name, assuming the feminine version of his nickname was a logical step. They became Rainey and Rainey until their divorce, when Ma made her true fame as a vocalist.
And speaking of fame, here’s two-time Grammy-winning Marsalis showing off his composing and arranging skills. Relying strongly on percussion is “El Train,” named after the subway. It’s an ironic title, for it plays under the scene in which the musicians are en route to the recording session – on foot. A nickel saved is a nickel earned.
Listen to Track Three before you read its two-word title. The second word is “Mama,” but from listening to the spirited melody in 2/4, you wouldn’t guess the adjective in front of it. It includes such fancy trumpeting that the hornplayer would be welcome in any orchestra recruited to play the overture to GYPSY.
MA RAINEY takes place in that greatest of Midwest metropolises, so musically we go from “Chicago Sun” to “Chicago at Sunset,” arguably the soundtrack’s most beautiful song. That’s as it should be, for it is a lovely time to be in the city. The melody is so evocative that you can imagine the sun setting on Lake Shore Drive.
Two of Marsalis’ compositions are set to lyrics. “Sweet Lil’ Baby of Mine” has words by Harry Connick, Jr. One of the lyricists on “Baby, Let Me Have It All” was Charley Patton (1891-1934) and the other, who added his words much later, was Wilson himself. It’s one of those delightful songs where the singer says a line and the band members stop playing just long enough to echo the lyric that he’s just sung.
From the titles “Levee’s Song,” “Levee and Dussie” and “Levee Confronts God,” you can tell who’s the next important character in the film. “Levee’s Song” introduces us to the horn player who doesn’t plan to stay in Ma’s employ for long. (In fact, he won’t – but not because his plans to start his own band take shape.)
Here the melody is amiable, sunny and optimistic – as Levee is when the story begins. The clarinetist plays so sweetly that you’ll understand why this instrument is often called a licorice stick. (Just as impressive in “The Story of Memphis Green” are the oboe and the tuba, which are bound to bring smiles to your face.)
“Levee and Dussie” occurs when he tries to move in on Ma’s current girlfriend. Although he’s a fast worker with a glib delivery, the song takes its time. Perhaps that’s a comment on Dussie’s dubious feelings after Levee says he knows how to treat a woman and “buy her presents.”
“That,” she drawls, “is what they all say – till it comes time to buy the presents.”
As for “Levee Confronts God,” the music alone tells you who’s going to win that conflict.
Levee was played by Chadwick Boseman. Although he doesn’t appear on the soundtrack, no report on MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM would be complete without a mention of him. The actor, merely forty-three years old, was quietly and privately dealing with health problems. He died only a month after finishing some dubbing work.
That Boseman was cast in fifteen films in seven years reiterates that he was no longer a rising star but a genuine one. His MA RAINEY performance has already garnered twelve different nominations among various film societies. Expect more to come.
Marsalis knows how to end an album. A song called “Skip, Scat, Doodle-Do” offers a true New Orleans sound. (The banjo itself is well worth waiting for.) The song was written by Clifford Hayes (1893-1941), whose band was called The Dixieland Jug Blowers. That’s why Marsalis had to find someone who could “play” the jug; Don Flemons answered the call, as did Chaz Leary when the need arose for someone to play the washboard.
The presence of those two “instruments” tells you that this is music that’s simple yet delightful. Pianist Toledo is of course right when he asserts that “There’s more to life than having a good time.” Still and all, listening to this soundtrack, is both a good time and a fine way to while away the hours.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com and can be found in the new magazine Encore Monthly.