In Roots, his capacious debut solo recording from Decca Classics, violinist Randall Goosby turns excavation into art. In ranging from works by such Black composers as Florence Price, William Grant Still, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson to George Gershwin and Antonín Dvořák, this gifted young player embodies the premise that traditions are both deep and diverse. Influences run in all directions. Borrowing, grafting — and yes, appropriating — make the collective musical ground richer and more fertile.
The album opens with a personal handshake. In “Shelter Island” Goosby joins forces with bassist Xavier Foley to perform the latter’s ingratiating duo composition. The title honors the spot on Long Island where the two young musicians participated in The Perlman Music Program together in 2011. In its loose-joined jazz/blues idiom, infectiously worked-through melodies, and call-and-response exchanges, the sense of a genuine, playful friendship beams out.
No even reasonably inclusive exploration of American Black music and its influences could leave the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess out of the frame. Goosby includes four familiar numbers from the work — “Summertime,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
Ably supported by pianist Zhu Wang, Goosby avoids the trap of simply recycling the overly familiar. “Summertime,” which can come to a humid standstill, saunters along nicely here — a sketch of breezy, easy living. In the other numbers, the violinist’s natural phrasing and conversational cadences approximate singing without aping it. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” has an appealing verve, now perky, now exuberant, now sassy and insouciant. In “Bess” you can almost feel Porgy’s caressing, come-closer manner, like an arm snaking around her shoulders.
Three solo pieces by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004) follow, each one a different slant on the blues. “Plain Blues” is short, frankly sexy, and louche. “Just Blues” belies its title with melting phrases, asked and unanswered questions, and quizzical speculations. Jaunty fiddling and a jittery meandering line mark “Jettin’ Blues.” Goosby’s easy virtuosity and chameleon-like changes of mood shine.
In his Suite for Violin and Piano, William Grant Still (1895–1978) based each of its three movements on a work of Harlem Renaissance-era sculpture. hey run from the percussive and somewhat repetitive “African Dancer” to a lushly soap-operatic “Mother and Child” to the best of the three, a sharply rhythmic and strongly voiced “Gamin.”
Florence Price (1887–1953), whose work is enjoying a long overdue renaissance of its own nearly 70 years after her death, is represented here by the sweetly poignant and patiently expressed “Adoration” and a pair of minor-key fantasies, by turns spry, pensive, and dramatic. The chromaticism in the F-sharp-minor selection has a whiff of Rachmaninoff.
“Deep River,” adapted into a piano standard waiting-to-be by the British Black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and arranged by Maud Powell, may recall Jerome Kern’s stately “Ol’ Man River,” but the spiritual’s tune cuts its own deep furrow. Goosby rides the music’s bends and eddies and turbulent tumbles beautifully, with a lyrical expansiveness alert to every nuance.
Roots closes with Dvořák’s buoyant four-movement Sonatina for Violin and Piano. Never mind that the connection of the piece to the rest of the album is somewhat arbitrary — the Czech composer wrote it in New York. Goosby and Wang give a performance at once so keen and charming that you just go along for the end of what has been a rewarding and illuminating ride.