Inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, Grammy-nominated violinist Curtis Stewart’s Of Power melds classical, electronica, and more than a bit of dub and hip-hop influence into a compellingly original statement about identity, personal challenges, and the state of America in 2021. Recorded during the pandemic, and released a few weeks ago to coincide with Juneteenth, the 17-track, 65-minute album includes original takes on melodies from Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane, the “Greek Blues,” Beethoven, Bach, Paganini, Eugène Ysaÿe, and more. Many of the compositions are barely recognizable in Stewart’s reworkings, but that’s all part of a package in which Stewart’s struggles and understanding of the world come through loud and clear.
Stewart, who is currently the chamber music and New Juilliard Ensemble manager at the Juilliard School in New York City, has done everything from perform in the string section of Stevie Wonder’s band to soloing at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and with the New York Philharmonic. In solo capacity and with his two ensembles, he’s worked with Mark O’Connor, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and members of Snarky Puppy. The list of his popular and new-music collaborators requires multiple Google searches for anyone of a certain age. He is an accomplished musicians and deep thinker with an irrepressible spirit and desire for freedom.
Of Power’s tone is set with the opening track, the folk-influenced “Louisiana Blues Strut — A Cakewalk” by African American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004). In short order, two Improvisations on the Paganini Caprice No. 11 followed by one based on Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple” introduce Stewart’s musical vocabulary: deep electronic beats, high and hashy tinkles, electronically enhanced violin riffs, spoken word, song, and more. One track lifts off from the classic “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” while others speak of the murder of Breonna Taylor and Stewart’s travails caregiving for his mother, violinist Elektra Kurtis-Stewart. When the electronically dubbed phone rings, as it does on one too many tracks, one can’t help but wonder if it’s someone calling about another death from police violence or COVID-19, or it’s an agent from an insurance company with more of the deadening paperwork that plagues the American healthcare system (which Stewart grew to despise).
There are many extremely powerful recitations on this album, including those that speak of Black anger and rage. At one point, Stewart asks, “What is the weight of human?” On another track he asks, “Where is our power?”
Much of the time, Stewart seems disarmingly honest in his deeply personal and frequently compelling poetry, singing, confessions, and lamentations. But sometimes, his approach to music can seem a bit formulaic. Even though five tracks were mastered by Prince’s sound engineer Derek Linzy from Paisley Park, I kept wishing that some of the electronic data bank didn’t include what sounds like low bitrate MP3. But hey, this album was recorded during the pandemic when resources were limited. Ultimately, Of Power invites you to feel deeply as you ponder what it means to be alive and an agent of change in 2021.