Linn Records
AKD 218
Hybrid multi-channel SACD with
HDCD-encoded Redbook layer
label website

"Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever." - Lloyd Brown -

The Paul Robeson Legacy is a collection of spirituals and ballads made famous by the legendary singer, actor, athlete and political activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and arranged specially for Willard White. Appearing alongside White are trumpeter Guy Barker, pianist and percussionist Neal Thornton, bassist Geoff Gascoyne, guitarist Richard Bolton and drummer Mark Doffman.

The son of a slave, Robeson first gained fame by exposing African-American spirituals to a wider audience and presenting them as works that could stand alongside other popular forms of song, later as a committed Civil Rights activist who spoke out against racism and fascism. He was also the first African-American artist to refuse to perform before segregated audiences. His political activities eventually caught the stern gaze of Senator Joseph McCarthy and Robeson's subsequent treatment by the conservatively dominated U.S. establishment of the time all but erased his considerable achievements from history. But recently, he's begun to receive deserved recognition for his humanitarian efforts.

The life and work as well as recordings of Paul Robeson clearly had a profound resonance for Willard White and provided the inspirational spark that led him to become a singer. World-renowned for his huge, rich and almost bottomless voice, White was born in Jamaica, studied at Julliard in New York and made his operatic debut as Colline in La Boheme. He has appeared on opera stages in Europe and North America as Golaud in Pelleas et Melisande, Mephistopheles in La Damnation de Faust and in the title roles of The Flying Dutchman and Boris Godunov. His considerable repertoire ranges from Monteverdi, Händel and Mozart to Verdi, Wagner, Shostakovich and Gershwin.

The tracks on this disc are mostly spirituals such as "Witness", "Ezekiel Saw The Wheel", "Go Down Moses" and "Scandalize My Name", plus a scattering of folk tunes and Jazz standards, albeit interpreted in a minimalist, stripped- down contemporary style with instrumentations limited to guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and trumpet.

Robeson had a great passion for folk music and once remarked, "Through their folk songs, we learn the true spirit of a people". Included here is the Scottish song "Eriskay Love Lilt" and "Joe Hill", a moving tribute to the early American union activist of the same name. Popular standards such as Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazy Bones" and Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" showcase White's ability to interpret popular ballads. "Mood Indigo" is given a down-home bluesy treatment that sharply contrasts with Ellington's original recording of 1940. "All God's Children Got A Robe" has a subtle bossa nova lilt to it, not to mention some exceptionally fine trumpet playing that adds a touch of exotic flavor to the proceedings. White's charismatic presence offers an appealing mix of wit and pathos in performances allied to an almost palpable reverence for Robeson.

I have no doubt that White has had to face many of the same injustices in his own career, in a field where African-Americans still constitute a very small minority. In the contextual subliminal message of this music, I certainly could sense a life of struggle but also one balanced by powerful wit and joy. In "Lazy Bones", White's delivery includes wink-and-a-nod charm that never fails to bring a smile every time I hear it. While I'm not a particularly religious person nor one who frequents the Spirituals section in my local record shop, it was difficult not to be swept up by White's passion and conviction so evident in these performances. From what I've read about Paul Robeson, I think he would have been greatly impressed with Willard White's fine tribute.

This wonderfully performed and engineered hybrid SACD captures Willard's lovely burnished bass-baritone to perfection. His rich voice is fully present, three-dimensional and centered, with backing instruments surrounding him in a clean, airy and defined soundstage. Guy Barker's trumpet is exceptionally well rendered, the customarily brass blat well preserved. There is virtually no trace of hardness or grain even on the HDCD-encoded CD layer. Indeed, this is one of only a handful of hybrid SACDs I've heard where both layers sound equally convincing and exceptional.

The liner notes state, "We hope that this album presents a fitting tribute to the life and work of Paul Robeson whose pioneering message of racial equality, human rights and the unifying power of music needs to continue to be heard". In my book, Willard White and Linn Records have succeed big-time in this endeavor.