Leyla McCalla, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes (Music Maker Relief Foundation)

Leyla McCalla, Vari-Colored songs, A Tribute to Langston Hughes, album cover

Leyla McCalla’s debut record as a leader is ambitious, deep and gorgeous. Playing an array (cello, guitar and banjo) of string instruments, her songs have sparse arrangements that give a sense of space to the sounds. This is a quiet record but that doesn’t mean that it lacks in intensity. About half the songs are takes on Langston Hughes’ poetry and half are traditional folks songs from the United States and the Caribbean. McCalla updates Hughes’ words and ideas for a new generation with a rootsier, less-busy feel than the better-known bebop-type recordings that Charles Mingus led in the ’60s. She balances old-timey and classical elements as she brings out both the joy and melancholy of Hughes’ work. McCalla brings out tension on songs like “Girl” and the lynching lament “Song For a Dark Girl,” but never really resolves it which makes them hit harder both lyrically and musically. Except for the language difference, the traditional songs could be Hughes’ poetry. “Labonit,” with its lyrics of having to bury the sun, matches up well with Hughes’ musings about, “Why the sky’s so blue/And why’s the clay so red?” and the conclusions about the South that he comes to in “Heart of Gold.” And the music, especially the songs where McCalla pairs cello and bass, possess a dark tone that enhances the lyrics. McCalla’s efforts here have birthed a classic work that will remain with and reward any and all listeners for a great while.