The Mercy Suite: The Songs Of Tomas Doncker And Yusef Komumyakaa At La Mama, Tuesday, January 30th, 2018, Reviewed
Spoken word and hip-hop artist Ise Lyfe got it right last night when he called poet Yusef Komunyakaa a sensualist about instruments. One of the post-be- bop proto-hip hop stars, Yusef is a sensualist not just about instruments but about language itself. Yusef isn’t given to the snap, crackle, and pop of jive beatnikism, or the ebonic plagued razzle dazzle of rap, rather he works in the, whatever the subject matter might be, sexiness of juxtaposition images. Yusef’s collaborator Tomas Doncker made a similar comment when he noted how great Yusef is with titles. “The Mercy Suite” – a suite of songs about the nature of mercy? That isn’t what the album we were at La Mama to celebrate last night was about: Yusef is such a sensualist the about seems to happen elsewhere, the subject matter is subjugated to the caress of language. “The Blue Hour” -with its hint of genre and depression and nocturnal night time is the right time, is more sensuality even in the face of death (one of Yusef’s great subject matters) or war (he is a Vietnam veteran). The medium is as big a part of the message as the message itself, so when Yusef and True Groove guitar hero Tomas Doncker got together ten years ago, part of the point was the medium was “Black Americana,” a dark and lovely sound which included jazz, funk, rock and folk.
The Mercy Suite is, literally, a deluxe room in hospice where the terminally ill can spend their final days with their loved ones in comfort and privacy. At La Mama’s “The Ellen Stewart Theatre” last night, had one thing in common with hospice, it came to terms with the past in a glorious musical not for comfort but steely soulfuness. The evening began with Tomas and the True Groove All Stars performing six of The Mercy Suite’s finest moments, followed by seven poems (chosen by Yusef) read by actors and admirers of Yusef’s, and the evening ended with four more numbers from the Yusef-Tomas songbook.
Some whirling sound effects heralded the band into the “magical” room with a tender, soulful “Whenever I Close My Eyes” -the song always hit me as a strangely terrifying world of post traumatic stress, the fourth song was “Deja Vu (You),” as straightforward a lost love as you will ever hear (you can bet the Stevie Wonder echo isn’t accidental) and between the two the mood is slow, sad, disquieting, and in between the two song there was the funk work out “Underworld” and guitar pyrotechnics of “Rumours Of War,” so no, not an evening for the faint of heart. The entire proceedings ended an hour and three quarters later with “Little Blue Room,” a singalong about insanity, so yeah, fun but not FUN, poetic and artistic but relentlessly downbeat.
Yusef wasn’t able to be at “The Songs Of Tomas Doncker And Yusef Komumyakaa,” and the proceedings were all the more personal for Tomas, who choked up a little before continuing with the fourth song of the evening. Doncker was at the top of his game all night, consistently amusing and full of wonderful stories about his friendship with the Pulitzer prize winning poet. He spoke of having no idea who the “Emily” of “Sweet Emily” was and not wishing to intrude upon Yusef’s privacy had never asked him till finally, after performing “Sweet Emily” all over the world, his curiosity got the better of him. Emily didn’t exist, Yusef chose the most popular name for women that year. This isn’t just a great story as such, it is a great story that gets to the heart of the creative process, of how metaphor is the osmosis for poetry, how deconstructing Komumyakaa is a sucker’s game. I was writing about the upcoming third collaboration “The Black Magnolia Project” the other day, and was warned over and over again, this was not linear storytelling, it was surrealistic and non-linear in the extreme. What this means here, is that on the last song of the first set, the point of “Shook Down,” can be heard in the All Stars blues rave up, with a “Yusef” chant. This is a go to song for the band, I remember hearing them pull it out at a Blue Note gig years ago and it was as much a show stopper there as always, with extremely strong competition, it blew the house down.
Khalil Kain. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a 24 year old woman of color friend in the office and mentioned that Khalil would be at the concert. “The worst thing about Juice was that he was killed off so soon…” she claimed. I saw Khalil performing some of his spring release Lambs To Slaughter at Pianos last year and women swarmed him. The man defines charisma and with two poems gave a roar as he reached, “to cling to the song, you’ve got to get into it so deep.” Also reading Yusef poems were Ise Lyfe, Graham Stewart so excellent in “The Pill,” Winsome Brown, a superstar actress, and “mob boss,” Marla Mase.
This is what Tomas called treats, along with giving away free copies of The Mercy Suite and Black Magnolia on USBs, but the greatest treat was listening to Tomas describe spending three months working on creating “The New Day” with Yusef. If “The New Day,” about the black migration from the South to the Northeast and the churches they brought with them, isn’t Doncker’s greatest moment, it is one of them.
In no order:
Children Of Darfur
The New Day
Can’t Say No
Some Ol’ Dolls
Post Modern Jive
I all but begged Tomas to include “Post Modern Jive” last night.
However, the height his band hit on “The New Day” followed by “Black Magnolia” was so high, it is hard to grasp how high it was. Friendship has nothing to do with it, if you were friends with Picasso would you sneer at “Guernica”? This is true artistry between New York’s poet laureate and New York’s best post-punk guitarist. “The New Day” has one of the great call to arms of all time, “Sinner, come home to Jesus” isn’t satire, or parody, or theology, it is a meeting ground for survivors of slavery. If “The New Day” was universal, “Black Magnolia,” is insular, dedicated to the late soul singer Lael Summer, “mockingbird sky, broken little star…” is a passionate depressive song, lost in feeling as much from Tomas’ tender singing as the bands empathic performance. those two songs saw Artur Uronen on Gonzo Pedal Steel seem to echo every feeling, Artur and Nick Rolfe on keyboards were specifically great, but James Dellatacoma guitar shadows Tomas the way Paul’s singing shadowed John’s. The All Stars were potent but willing to be quiet, an inverse of their Bowery Electric gig last year. Between “The Pill” and “The Mercy Suite,” True groove Productions” have begun the year at the peak of its power.