Clubland: Singer-storyteller Eshu Bumpus sheds a little light in honor of MLK Jr.

  • Valley storyteller and singer Eshu Bumpus joined the Green Street Trio this week for an emotional musical tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Fran Ferry

  • Eshu Bumpus led a musical tribute in Northampton this week to Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Susan Wilson

Published: 1/17/2018 3:49:45 PM

In honor of the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., vocalist and storyteller Eshu Bumpus gave an emotional performance at the Northampton Jazz Workshop at Spare Time Northampton’s City Sports Grille this past Tuesday night.

The weekly jazz showcase can always be counted on for cool music, but Bumpus and the band brought the audience to more deeply affecting places than usually experienced at the bowling alley bar — one song turned some audience members into ebullient dancers, jumping to their feet to groove in a gaggle by the beer taps; ten minutes later, those same folks were in their seats, wiping away tears.

The house band is the Green Street Trio (pianist Paul Arslanian, bassist George Kaye and drummer Jon Fisher, with guest saxophonist James Robinson), and they backed Bumpus for a set of eight songs by artists inspired and moved by the civil rights struggle for equality and freedom.

The show began with Bumpus’ a cappella rendition of the intro to James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light.” His skills as a storyteller gave him extra communicative power, making eye contact around the crowded room as he sang Taylor’s words:

“Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King / and recognize that there are ties between us / all men and women living on the earth / ties of hope and love / sister and brotherhood / that we are bound together / in our desire to see the world become a place in which our children can grow free and strong / we are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead / we are bound and we are bound.”

And then the whole band kicked in, an immediate segue into Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas’ “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” made famous by Nina Simone. 

It was gospel with a boogaloo beat, flecked with Robinson’s tenor sax, a time-worn horn with a soulful tone. The rhythm inspired some women to dance near the bar, and they kept their party going for the next tune, one of the night’s highlights — “Compared To What,” the legendary Les McCann and Eddie Harris protest tune from 1969 written by Eugene McDaniels.

The song’s pulsing, insistent rhythm always means business, and the Green Street Trio really laid into the lengthy instrumental introduction. Fisher kept it clicking along and threw in some snare cracks and cymbal smashes for punctuation, while Arslanian built tension by moving intervals up the piano keys, a steady climb that shifted in and out of dissonance, until the whole band finally landed together on the main riff for a fantastic release.

When Bumpus introduced the next selection, the show’s mood shifted. “This is a song that should be history. It shouldn’t have to be sung anymore,” he said, setting the scene for “Strange Fruit,” a devastating standard best known through Billie Holiday’s recordings.

As the band vamped in a mournful minor key behind him, Bumpus held a piece of paper in his hand and asked the audience to repeat after him as he read, one by one, a long list of names (and ages) of people of color killed by police. His voice began to crack with emotion early on, but when he came to the age of Tamir Rice, 12, the information left his lips in a blurt, a mix of anger and horror and pain. He was crying, and not the only one.

After singing the unflinching song, Bumpus asked for a minute to collect himself, then changed gears for “Four,” a playful Miles Davis tune given lyrics by Jon Hendricks. It was a busy run-on sentence of a melody in the vocalese style (where words are matched to a famous instrumental solo). Arslanian really listened to Bumpus’ mellow-voiced delivery, interjecting little fun runs and deft chords in the quick empty spaces.

“We Shall Overcome” was next. “Time for you to sing,” Bumpus said to the crowd, explaining that he’d been singing the song since 1960, when he was 8 years old: “Every weekend we were in picket lines singing this song, among many others.” He gave lyrical prompts as each verse came around, a la Pete Seeger, and though I’ve sung along to the tune at many a folk festival, the jazz reharmonization of the simple melody made for a mind-twisting experience.

The vocalist took a short break in a nearby booth while the band played a medley of two of Charles Mingus’ most personal/political songs (“Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi U.S.A.” and “Fables of Faubus,” about the Arkansas governor who, in 1957, used the National Guard to prevent African American students from attending Little Rock Central High School). 

Bumpus then returned to the stage for a final song, a loose and elongated version of Clifford Brown’s light and swingy “Joy Spring,” as the gentle beginnings of another winter storm drifted past the parking lot lights.

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