James P. Johnson: De Organizer & The Dreamy Kid

University of Michigan Opera Theater

Naxos 8.669041

Composer James P. Johnson’s name may not be especially well known, but his jazz song Charleston ranks easily among the best known standards of the 1920s. Less known still is Johnson’s prowess as a composer for the stage and concert hall. A movement from his Harlem Symphony recently appeared on Radio 3, and the whole work is well worth hearing, but it is his two operas that are the subject of this release. Each work is relatively short and in one act and both were reconstructed by jazz musicologist, pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and educator James Dapogny, who sadly died in 2019, before the performances and this recording were produced.

Johnson sets texts by two literary luminaries of his time. De Organizer sets a text by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, while The Dreamy Kid adapts a play by Eugene O’Neill. De Organizer is a pointedly political piece, but with a thoroughly cheery approach to serious subject matter. In a cabin on a plantation in the American South, a group of African American sharecroppers prepare to meet The Organizer, who is establishing a union, which he is encouraging people to join to establish a brighter future for the workers, against both exploitation and racism. The meeting is disrupted by The Overseer, who uses intimidation tactics to prevent the workers joining the union, but despite his threats of violence, he is disarmed and non-violently overpowered. The optimism of the work is complemented by its musical form, incorporating African American antiphony and a lively chorus part, exemplified in the spiritual inflected Plantin’, plowin’, hoein. The Organizer himself is played by Lonel Woods, who is the only singer to appear in both operas on the CD, occupying pivotal roles in each instance. Showcasing his variety as both actor and singer, Woods is in sunny optimistic form in De Organizer, but inhabits far darker territory as the troubled Dreamy in the second opera.

The Dreamy Kid is quite a different animal from the preceding work. No chorus at all this time, rather a chamber drama between four characters, with a far bleaker conclusion. The titular Dreamy has just been involved in a skirmish in which a white man has been killed, yet Dreamy is risking his life to visit his dying mother on what might be the last occasion he has chance to see her. The piece ends with Dreamy listening in fear as police storm toward the door, where he will undoubtedly be met with violence and probably death, without any trial. That the piece has disturbing resonances today is an understatement. The four soloists in this work (Woods, Elizabeth Gray, Lori Celeste Hicks and Olivia Duval) carry the drama sensitively and with excellent musicality (I predict all of the soloists on this release have bright futures ahead of them!). Especially poignant are the scenes between Dreamy and his mother (Gray), which are thrown into sharp relief with the tension found elsewhere in the work. If I do have a complaint here, it is that we don’t hear the whole opera, which is a shame as it is undoubtedly the more substantial work, though it makes a superb double bill with De Organizer.

A highly recommended release for anyone interested in serious music written by a composer usually associated with works for purposes other than the stage or concert platform. Let’s hope there is a much needed resurgence of interest in Johnson’s music based on this remarkable release! DA

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