William Grant Still (1895-1978) was surely the most important early African-American composer of serious music. Born in the South, educated in Arkansas and in Ohio at Wilberforce and Oberlin (where a scholarship was arranged specifically for him), Still had a long and productive career in all aspects of American classical music. He also worked with such popular bands as those of Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw and Bing Crosby. This CD of his piano music, played sensitively by Mark Boozer, gives us a good sampling.
'Three Visions' and 'Seven Traceries' are tone poems of a sort. The former, written for his pianist wife, Verna Arvey, attempts to limn 'the story of the human soul after death.' The latter paints 'seven musical portraits of the Divinity,' according to his daughter. Both of these suites are in a rather faceless impressionist style, to be honest, and one would certainly not have any idea of their intent without reading the booklet notes. They are pleasant enough, but leave no lasting impression.
But when we get to the rest of this disc - 'The Blues,' 'A Deserted Plantation,' and 'Africa,' we enter a realm of much more memorable and enjoyable music. 'The Blues' is a section from his ballet 'Lenox Avenue' and is a slow, sensuous blues, played here with real feeling by Boozer. 'A Deserted Plantation,' inspired by the Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem of the same name, was originally scored for Paul Whiteman's orchestra and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1933. Boozer plays the piano part from that score. Its three sections - 'Spiritual,' 'Young Missy,' and 'Dance' - are replete with recognizably African-American rhythms and harmonies. I particularly liked the insistent slow-drag rhythm in 'Spiritual.' 'Africa' is a three-part work, a piano reduction made by Arvey of Still's orchestral score, that was somewhat influenced by Still's early teacher, Edgard Varèse but retains quintessentially African-American elements.
Recorded sound is fine. The helpful booklet notes are written by the composer's daughter, Judith Anne Still.