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Blues in August: Mark Lomax Septet at Short North Stage

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by Richard Sanford on August 9, 2016

One of the finest drummer-composers to ever call Columbus home, Dr. Mark Lomax II has, in the last year, reminded us of his power and lit fires under every creative artist and music lover in town who’s paying attention. Two new albums (watch this space for a review shortly). A rapturously received performance (extremely rare for a local artist) at the Wexner Center for the Arts in June. And what personally excites me most: his work with the Short North Stage’s August Wilson Festival, the arts event of 2016.

Following his Amiri Baraka tribute, Blues People, in January, on Wednesday, August 17th, at 7:00 pm, the Mark Lomax Septet will present a new suite, Blues in August, at the Garden Theater in the Short North (1187 N High St), with assistance from the Johnstone Fund for New Music. Lomax and the trio with whom he shares an empathy bordering on symbiosis, Edwin Bayard on tenor saxophone, and Dean Hulett on bass (visiting from his new home of San Diego), names any jazz fan in town needs to know, are augmented by four string players. Manhattan School of Music alum William Manley, on violin, has brought his burnished tone to the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra for ten seasons. Violinist Andy Carlson teaches at Denison (with whom Short North Stage are co-producing The Piano Lesson later in the festival), has worked with bluegrass stars like Casey Cook, has played with REM and Billy Bragg, and leads local gypsy jazz outfit SpeakEasy in addition to his symphonic work. Violist on the rise Norman Cardwell has been generating hot buzz with the New Albany Symphony and the CMC. Cellist Mary Davis Fetherston is best known for her work with the Columbus Bach Ensemble but has also shown an affinity for contemporary music such as her recording of William Bolcom with the Dayton Symphony.

Regarding inspiration, in the press release for this performance, “Stories are a powerful thing,” said Lomax. “They uplift and ‘edu-tain.’ They help us to remember who we’ve been, and allow us to shape who we’ll be. The story of Blacks in America is as much a story of pain and suffering as it is one of unprecedented resilience and strength. August Wilson understood the power of this story and made telling it his life’s work. I hope to honor the great playwright’s Spirit by continuing to explore that rich history and telling this most human of stories.”

Intriguingly, Lomax directly addresses themes from Wilson’s plays in the five movements of Blues in August. Starting with “Ma Rainey,” the blues diva memorialized in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which tore the roof off the Short North Stage last month. The second movement, “Fences,” is named for Wilson’s masterpiece of frustrated ambition and hubris in the face of institutionalized cruelty and racism. “Gem of the Ocean,” the third piece, is named for a mystical piece about redemption and creation at the turn of the 20th century. The fourth, “Joe Turner,” references the song “Joe Turner Blues” (best known in a rendition by Big Bill Broonzy) that serves as the linchpin for Wilson’s heartbreaking Joe Turner’s Come and Gone about holding onto one’s identity in a shifting world and the horrors of discrimination. The final movement, “Blues in August,” calls to mind Wilson’s famous quote to Bill Moyers, “The Blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural expression and the cultural response to blacks in America and to the situation that they find themselves in. And contained in the blues is a philosophical system at work.”

Blues in August is a rare case of one of our finest musical voices given the resources to pay tribute to a perfect subject. This kind of opportunity isn’t as rare as a comet, but sometimes it feels like it comes around as frequently. Do not miss this.

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