Nearing its fourth decade, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning female African-American a cappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock was ready to follow its adventurous spirit and undertake a new challenge – to honor some of the seminal songs that first inspired its unique blend of folk, blues, jazz, gospel and ethnic music in a concert presentation utilizing an instrumental backing trio for the first time. Upping the ante, the singers decided to perform this special program at New York’s prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center venue and to record their two-night appearance there in front of surprised and delighted audiences. Talk about working without a net!
In the opening moments of Sweet Honey In The Rock’s new 2-CD set, “A Tribute – Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center,” well-timed for its February release – concluding Black History Month and preceding Women’s History Month in March – group member Ysaye Barnwell recites a roll-call of some of the great female African-American vocalists whose songs helped shape the group and comprise much of “Tribute’s” repertoire, including Abbey Lincoln, Odetta, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Carmen McRae, Bessie Smith, and Sarah Vaughan.
The songs on this recording are drawn from those two shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall in April 2011. Adorned with new arrangements by Sweet Honey’s members, there are jazz standards such as “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Wild is the Wind,” and “Tell Me More and More and Then Some,” gospel/civil rights anthems melded into a “Freedom Suite,” Afro-centric songs (the Sixties hit song “Pata Pata,” “Sabumoya,” “Shuku Shuku,” and the closing “N'diarabi/Africa is Where My Heart Lies”), show tunes, blues, and a salsa-flavored original, “Let There Be Peace.”
Sweet Honey In The Rock’s distinctive swirl of a cappella vocals, encompassing waves of imaginative ensemble harmonies and occasional solo showcases, is heard unaccompanied, aside from the quintet’s hand percussion, on about half of the songs. Interwoven throughout the presentation are the understated instrumental contributions of the trio nicknamed “the Honey Men” – Stacey Wade (musical director/piano/keyboards), Parker McAllister (bass), Jovol Bell (drums, percussion) – who augment Sweet Honey’s exhilarating, soulful voices and confident, genre-crossing dexterity.
Founded in 1973 by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon at the (Washington) D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company, Sweet Honey In The Rock’s line-up currently includes returning original members Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson (Dr. Reagon retired from the group in 2004) and “long-timers” Ysaye Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, and Aisha Kahlil, as well as on-stage sign language interpreter Shirley Childress. The group has toured from Australia to Zimbabwe, performed in the White House at the request of President and First Lady Obama, accrued numerous honors (including a Grammy and several Grammy nominations , most recently for its first CD on Appleseed, 2007’s “Experience…101”), and established itself as an inspiring, empowering musical force worldwide.