Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon has a nerve-wracking couple of days ahead of him. The former Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra member and Waynesboro, Georgia, native will kick off the National Black Arts Festival‘s annual summer event tonight (July 14) with a live performance of his original soundtrack to the 1920s silent film “Body and Soul,” directed by Oscar Micheaux.
Gordon’s composition, scored for a 16-piece big band, premiered in 2004 as part of the New York Film Society’s celebration of Paul Robeson. The LCJO has been at his side for most subsequent performances, but this time it’s different. A fresh group of musicians (sprinkled with a few “Body and Soul” veterans) will play the music tonight at the Rialto Center for the Arts, and that has Gordon a bit concerned. After all, the demands of playing a live movie score are vastly different from the typical concert. Gordon arrived in Atlanta yesterday and will have only six hours of rehearsal time with the musicians before the opening curtain.
“The hard part about doing the film is that [the musicians] have to concentrate for 86 minutes straight,” Gordon explained. “Some of the interaction with the film requires them to watch so they can improvise with what’s happening on the screen. However, if they’re watching the film, sometimes it’s easy … to just get caught up in the film. If we were doing a night of big-band music where we could play a tune, stop, play a tune, stop — that would work.”
The movie stars Robeson (at left) in his first film role and opens a festival saturated with music. On Thursday, “The Best of Brazil” unites composer Ivan Lins with singers Cassandra Wilson and Marcia Bittencourt, a Brazilian ballet group and an Afro-Brazilian percussion ensemble. A celebration of Curtis Mayfield, featuring the Impressions, Dionne Farris and Joi Gilliam, is scheduled for Friday night. Both concerts will take place in Symphony Hall. In addition, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will perform Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and numerous bands will take to Centennial Olympic Park throughout the weekend.
“Body and Soul” is the story of a fugitive who disguises himself as a small-town Georgia preacher. Various calamities featuring gullible churchgoers and a helpless young woman ensue, and the ending is less than happy. Robeson performs double duty as the swindling convict, who lives down to his scurrilous nature even under the parochial guise, and his beneficent twin brother.
Gordon hadn’t seen the movie before the soundtrack was commissioned but said he could instantly relate to its rural setting, especially the church scenes. The action takes place in a bar, the church and a home, and Gordon settled on a musical device for each place. Bar scenes are anchored by stride piano, and church is accompanied by a mix of gospel and jazz. Early swing and other period music permeates the soundtrack, with the only modern flourish coming near the end. When one of the characters journeys to Atlanta (the “big city”), the band starts playing over the chord changes to John Coltrane’s 1960s composition “Impressions.”
“A lot of what was happening in the film spoke to me,” Gordon said. “I can hear the mood of this section or that section. I wanted to speak to what was going on in the film but not necessarily mimic what was happening.”
Gordon expects a warm reception for the film, because many in the audience will relate to its Southern themes. Apart from the performance and the short rehearsal time, he’s mostly thinking about being in the South again. “I just love being in Georgia,” he said, “because it’s home.”