Rachel Barton Pine’s Blues Dialogues Explores Blues and Classical Idioms

Rachel Barton Pine is a versatile violinist and advocate for both new music and the cataloguing of music by Black composers. On the heels of her May 2018 album J.S. Bach: The Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, she has released Blues Dialogues (Cedille Records), featuring works by David Baker, William Grant Still, Dolores White, and Daniel Bernard Roumain among others. Every composition on the record features a different attempt at establishing common ground between the blues and classical traditions. One of the most exciting parts about listening through Blues Dialogues is experiencing how each different composer interacts with both idioms.

The first work on the album is David Baker’s Blues (Deliver My Soul), a relatively standard work for violin and clarinet based on 12-bar blues. The work doesn’t stray too far from blues conventions, but the performance is confident, engaging, and serves as a strong introduction to the larger theme of the album.

William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin & Piano is among the high points on the album. If the goal among these compositions is truly to achieve a dialogue between blues and classical idioms, Still’s Suite probably hits the mark strongest. While the beginning of the first movement, “African Dancer,” is a brisk allegro that calls late 19th-century sonatas to mind, it is quickly followed by a slow rubato section that recalls both blues and folk dances. “Mother And Child” evokes a blues-drenched Debussy, while “Gamin” is a fun, moderately-paced movement based on the French term for “street urchin.”

William Grant Still

William Grant Still

Halfway through the record, we are given an arrangement by W. Logan of Duke Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood, which frankly doesn’t add anything new to an already overplayed song, and feels obligatory on a record like this.

The work for which the record is named, Blues Dialogues by Dolores White features the premiere recording of its fourth movement. Scored for unaccompanied violin, the four movements of the piece work through textures that are simultaneously influenced by Thelonius Monk and Béla Bartók. At times, the music almost falls into a trap of getting stuck in endless blues riffs, but almost always finds its way out in a surprising fashion.

Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Filter for Unaccompanied Violin is the standout work on the album, and features a new introduction written for Pine. Roumain uses hip hop music as a primary inspiration and specifies that, “while spinning blistering virtuosic patterns, the performer is asked to ‘filter’ the violin’s coloring by moving the bow as close to, and as far away from, the bridge as possible.” These colorations of the violins sound are interspersed with contemporary violin techniques and blues licks that wouldn’t have been out of place in any other composition on the record.

Daniel Bernard Roumain

Daniel Bernard Roumain

The album is bookended with A Song Without Words by Charles Brown. (This track ends the CD version, but if you listen on Spotify, the album ends with William Grant Still’s Lenox Avenue, which does not appear on the CD.) Brown’s slow plaintive melodies are inspired by recordings from Blind Willie Johnson and serve as a nice come-down after the high energy of Filter.

Blues Dialogues expertly walks the tightrope of maintaining some of the sensitive intricacies of traditional classical music without losing the energy of blues and jazz. Fans of blues, classical music, and new music alike will surely find something to love in this album. Rachel Barton Pine is a dynamic, forceful, and versatile violinist who should not be ignored.