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Music Summer Guide: Erykah Badu and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Team Up

Music Summer Guide: Erykah Badu and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Team Up

When I'm nudged into Erykah Badu's backstage dressing room at the Brooklyn Museum, she's still recovering from a spontaneous outbreak of extended public adulation. The peerless soul vocalist's Q&A for the Red Bull Music Academy has just climaxed with every audience member who wasn't allowed to ask a question storming the stage at Ms. Badu's invitation, to the dismay of the event crew. During the ensuing 20-minute crush, Badu's fans took pictures, yelled questions, and staggered away from a Brief Encounter with Erykah's Kind exhibiting signs of a mellow, but very satisfying, high.

So now she's tired, too. A few handlers buzz around, light incense, play the role of road videographer, or busy themselves with journalistic petitioners. Her bass player, Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, is the only one sitting still, anchoring the couch next to Badu as if to pin it to the ground. As I've only been granted a few short minutes, I immediately ask Badu about her upcoming collaboration with the Brooklyn Philharmonic—a suite of arrangements inspired by her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)—when the singer proposes a shift in tone. "Can you give me a foot rub while we doing this?"

It's a low-stakes dare, but a dare all the same. Thundercat looks at me with a used-to-this poker face. As in improv comedy, the interviewer's job is often merely to say "yes, and . . ." so I accept. "My feet are kinda hard," she warns, taking off her footwear and extending her left calf, which is hennaed with intricate designs that extend well inside her pant leg. "It look like Africa," she tells me. The bassist cracks, finally, with a giggle. I take off my socks and shoes in a stab at solidarity, and begin massaging Badu's foot while inquiring again about that orchestra collaboration.

Her answer: It all comes down to openness, the correct feel, and the right references. The rapper and singer Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), with whom Brooklyn's ascendant local orchestra collaborated last season, introduced Badu to conductor Alan Pierson, who asked if she would offer up some songs for an orchestral rethink. Badu immediately nominated New Amerykah Part One. "I think a lot of the subtle mysteries and drama of that project will come across very well with timpani and strings and cellos and things," the singer says, withdrawing her foot. "There's just something about this social political aspect meeting this harmonic aspect."

This is a central tension in Badu's work, which can be both soothing and discomfiting. While her reedy, hip-hop-informed voice is a unique comfort, promoting all-is-well-in-the-world soulfulness, she has always been an experimental conceptualist and tinkerer, constructing multi-movement, suite-like pieces. (She labored on New Amerykah Part I for five years.) Badu's fans love her for her talent, but they're drawn to her every experimentation because few in modern pop can put the former in the service of the latter so seamlessly. "It's bigger than religion," Badu says of this polymath approach in New Amerykah's "The Healer."

Badu's ability to pivot from groove to gravitas is a positive omen that her next experiment won't be a modern variant on the shticky pops-orchestral concerts of yore, with familiar songs hauled out for would-be "classy" tune-ups. Under Pierson, the Brooklyn Philharmonic has searched for experimental textures and radical noise as well as orchestral finesse. The tough, fleet renderings of Bey pieces like "Life in Marvelous Times"—as well as their joint exploration of minimalist composer Frederic Rzewski's Attica-inspired opus "Coming Together"—proved better than anyone hoped. And the orchestra's programming has a political subtext that matches Badu's: They want Brooklyn audiences (and kids in Brooklyn schools, where the philharmonic also travels) to know that an orchestra can do old Mos Def songs proud and that Bey, in a new phase of his career, can deliver an innovative and successful take on modern classical compositions.

Local composer Ted Hearne—whose politically pointed Katrina Ballads cycle was released on Brooklyn label New Amsterdam Records in 2010, and who is orchestrating the new arrangements of Badu's New Amerykah songs—notes that the experimental-music world is already heavily influenced by hip-hop production. Take Badu's "The Healer," which features both a crisp, bell-like percussion part and a looser, low-end groove that moves in and out of sync. "It's all about that: about finding ways to get that push and pull happening with the beat," Hearne says. "The drums are just keeping time in the most crisp way, and then the bass is just behind so much. Just almost enough that it's not really in time at all," he adds.

These rhythmic games are like a drug for any post-minimalist Brooklyn composer. Hearne talks with excitement about how much "space" lingers between all the experimental layers of Badu's album. "She was just, like, 'Yeah, how do you orchestrate static?' I loved when she said that."

 

The June program at BAM will include Hearne's arrangements of five songs from New Amerykah Part One, with Badu handling vocals, plus Bey reprising last year's song cycle (arranged by composer Derek Bermel). Some of Badu's interviews from the recent documentary film The Black Power Mixtape may be incorporated into the Hearne arrangements, too.

"The feels are what made me make it," Badu says about the New Amerykah series. As mottoes go, it's unpretentious, even as it seems to guide Badu through many of her choices—whether in fan outreach, foot-rub invitations, or her response to orchestras willing to experiment. But it would be a mistake to see her improvisational, welcoming approach to the world as merely whimsical. "Everything I do is a political act," Badu told the crowd at the Brooklyn Museum. For Badu's fans—as well as modern classical music fans—in Brooklyn, the community able to appreciate both neo-soul and new-orchestral currents is about to get a little bit bigger.

Erykah Badu performs with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Yasiin Bey on June 8 and 9 at Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org


Eleanor Friedberger

June 28

The sunnier half of the Fiery Furnaces impressed plenty of listeners with her assured debut album, Last Summer, in 2011. But her latest, Personal Record, is even better: It bears traces of her manic creativity, but also offers uncomplicated summery rockers as well as reflective, slower pieces graced with a world-weariness smart enough to avoid "back in the day" indie nostalgia. Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North Sixth Street, musichallofwilliamsburg.com

Governors Ball Music Festival

June 7–9

It's hard for any single music festival to plausibly appeal to a wide variety of tastes, but this annual event on Randall's Island has made an honest attempt: Headliners include Kings of Leon, Guns N' Roses (version who's-counting), and Kanye West. The lower-billed acts represent a similar variety of styles: Nas, Grizzly Bear, Dinosaur Jr., and Erykah Badu help make the day-long entry fees worth it. Randall's Island, governorsballmusicfestival.com

Vision Festival

June 12–16

Our summer festival for adventurous jazz programming comes hard in its 18th edition. Every night boasts musicians who'll knock you sideways—like Milford Graves, Charles Gayle, Craig Taborn, and The Roots' favorite free-jazz pianist, D.D. Jackson—but the true can't-miss event is a rare NYC appearance by legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago veteran Roscoe Mitchell. The saxophonist will appear in what looks to be a burning trio, with Henry Grimes on bass, on June 13. If you like any kind of "extreme" music, you need to see him play. Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, artsforart.org

Northside Festival

June 13–20

Say what you will about pedantic debates over punk-band reunions that rest on the participation of non-canonical members—here it's Black Flag fronted by vocalist Ron Reyes (instead of Keith Morris or Henry Rollins)—these discussions are at least more interesting than listening to everyone's opinion about the latest trend piece about North Brooklyn. So come to Williamsburg and hear Greg Ginn shred his way through the Black Flag catalog! There will be other presentations of note, too—such as those by Solange, Swans, contemporary Southern metal gods Kylesa, and post-minimalist guitarist-composer Rhys Chatham (in collaboration with Oneida). Various Brooklyn venues, northsidefestival.com

Kings of the Mic Tour

June 20

Forgive (or forget) "Accidental Racist"—LL Cool J has the gravitas and the back catalog to make his first U.S. tour in five years feel like a destination event. The fact that he's got new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Public Enemy (still a fine album-releasing act, by the way) and Ice Cube in tow means that this night should be a crucial calendar corrective amid all the more predictably on-trend rap artists (Kanye, Kendrick Lamar) being presented this season. Roseland Ballroom, 239 West 52nd Street, roselandballroom.com

Stockhausen's 'Michaels Reise um die Erde'

July 18–20

The sharp, Cologne-based ensemble musikFabrik have been making a name for themselves by staging some of Karlheinz Stockhausen's most difficult theatrical works. (In Germany in 2011, I saw a jaw-dropping two-day, eight-hour performance of his final opera.) Now the Lincoln Center Festival brings the crew in to perform the North American premiere of a standalone single act from another Stockhausen opera. The composer is having a moment in NYC programming, from the Park Avenue Armory to the Philharmonic to some of Brooklyn's more experimental dens. If you've missed the resurgence so far, don't let this event pass by. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, lincolncenterfestival.org

Mostly Mozart

July 27–August 24

Conductor Louis Langrée is great at bringing Mozart across, and he'll be doing plenty of that at this venerable summer event. But the International Contemporary Ensemble is taking care of the stuff that falls outside the rubric, and its festival-inside-the-festival (August 10–20) is set to include premieres of new pieces by David Lang, Tyshawn Sorey, and George Lewis—as well as one by early minimalist and tape-noise pioneer Pauline Oliveros. Various venues, Lincoln Center, mostlymozart.org

Badu's neo-soul turns out to be a natural match for an orchestral treatment.
Courtesy Serato/Steve Dykes

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