Lowcountry
Release date: July 29, 2023
Label: Ropeadope

Lowcountry is the eponymous debut release from a new collective of Gullah Singers and storytellers Gracie Gadsen, Rosa Murray, Joseph Murray, and Ron Daise, co-lead by percussionist Quentin E. Baxter and composer/trumpeter Matt White. A foray into southern folk traditions, Lowcountry archives these Gullah stories and histories beside White’s vigorous 13-piece ensemble orchestrations. Some of South Carolina’s finest creatives impart their seasoned facilities and heritage onto Lowcountry, including saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Charlton Singleton. The output is a requiem of South Carolina’s rich musical legacy and a vital cultural artifact made possible by White’s 2019 receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship Award in music composition.

The Gullah are an African American ethnic group who predominantly reside in the Lowcountry region of the United States: Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas and within the coastal plain of the Sea Islands, which includes St. Helena Island. After finishing his Doctorate in Musical Arts at the University Miami, White took a job at Coastal Carolina University in 2012, teaching and managing the campus recording studio on the side. It was at the studio where he would encounter Dr. Eric Crawford, who recruited White to assist taping field recordings in St. Helena that year. What began as a one-off opportunity morphed into a year of traveling together pro bono. The journey yielded about 20 hours of recordings and a shared hope of returning the masters to younger generations of Gullah families as a means of conservancy.

Since then, the National Park Service, National Archive and the National Endowment for the Humanities have each taken a stake in supporting White and Crawford’s remarkable contributions. Along with preserving and archiving these histories, contemporizing and presenting them to younger audiences became another priority for White. Come 2019, White’s prestigious Guggenheim reception endorsed his return to St. Helena and further collection of recordings that would become the bedrock of Lowcountry.

The collective was built from the center out, with the magnanimous, GRAMMY® award-winning drummer Quentin E. Baxter at its core. A sixth generation griot in the Gullah community and Charleston native, Baxter is featured as a percussionist and co-producer of Lowcountry. From there, it was essential for the personnel to be a proper assemblage of Southern musicians, composers and natives, such as featured saxophonist and South Carolina native Chris Potter. “I wanted the project to have a certain weight and vibrancy, so I orchestrated for strings as well,” White notes.

The 9-track output is triumphant, rhythmically vibrant and carefully orchestrated. It begins with St. Helena-born vocalist Ron Daise’s poetry on “Forgotten Moments” which contextualizes the degree of the album’s forthcoming stories. “Welcome/Buzzard Lope” ensues with narrative introductions from Ron Daise, Gracie Gadsen, Rosa Murray and Joseph Murray. The arrangement of an old shouting song, as performed by Bessie Jones here features solos by White and alto saxophonist Michael Thomas. By slightly modulating his horn at each repeated melody, White implements the integral praise house service tradition of call and response.

Hey Neva” introduces another old ring shout, “Aye Neva”, typically sung in the morning. The didactic shouting song translates to “Hey Neighbor! Look at Day. Day come clean”, a Gullah phrase referring to the sunrise. The jubilant tune is commanded by Chris Potter on tenor sax, prompting the listeners to revel in the glory and spirit of an early morning. In a typical praise house service, song leaders must “Line the Hymn” (give the congregation the meter and hymnal number then recite scripture) before they can raise (sing) it. This short piece is an overture with elements of all the compositions interspersed. As Gracie says, “If you can’t raise the hymn, don’t line it!” A solo by violinist Micah Gangwer in the last phrase hints at the next hymn “Were You There,” an impassioned, epic harmony and movement.

Extracted from a traditional watchnight service, “Watchman” re-enacts the type of prayer that takes place in the church on New Year’s Eve, where prayers are held until midnight. Recorded in her home, White notes Rosa Murray’s steady-tempoed performance, which allowed for the arrangement to take on a stylish contemporary outfit with mixed meter bars and bell tones. The watchnight traditions harken back to Reconstruction, which Ron Daise alludes to while reciting the Emancipation Proclamation against Baxter’s drum solo. “Cheraw” is a tribute to the South Carolina-born jazz hero Dizzy Gillespie’s hometown. Featuring Charleston native and trumpeter Charlton Singleton, the tune references several compositions within the jazz hero’s vast catalog. The ensemble is pared down to a quintet for the album’s most straight ahead selection, “Prayed Up.” Here, Rosa discusses a rite-of-passage in the Gullah community: going out into the wilderness in order to experience a successful vision.

To resolve this sweeping enterprise, White identifies the most recognizable Gullah hymn “Kumbaya”, which translates to “Come By Here”, at the close of Lowcountry. The comprehensive arrangement incorporates a traditional shout rhythm as an entryway, which progresses through the styling of shifting string harmonies, layered pizzicatos and an extended flugelhorn solo. White adds: “I don’t think you can do a Gullah album without some type of reference to this song, and I think this is a unique take and a great way to close out the album while keeping a feeling of the story continuing.”

LOWCOUNTRY

 

JIM HYNES
GLIDE MAGAZINE
"On so many levels, this well-conceived exposition is a window into one of this country’s lesser-known, enduring cultures." Read the review here

LARRY BLUMENFELD
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
"[Matt ]White aims both to preserve Gullah songs and to reimagine them. The Lowcountry collective he assembled is anchored by Quentin Baxter, Ranky Tanky’s drummer, who deftly blends the Gullah beats of his upbringing in Charleston, S.C., with modern-jazz mastery." Read the review here.

 

PATRICK DELLONGEVILLE
PARIS-MOVE
"[an] ambitious and transcendent project." Read the review here

 

EDITOR
JAZZIZ
Read the review here

EDITOR
TEXTURA
"One comes away from the album enriched, the impression created of a sweeping journey successfully undertaken and the experience well worth the time and effort." Read the full review here

TOM HAUGEN
TAKE EFFECT
"“Forgotten Moments” starts the listen off with Ron Daise’s narration that segues into “Welcome/Buzzard Lope”, where the vivid storytelling is met with Mark Sterbank’s bright tenor sax and Jerald Shynett’s soulful trombone for the frisky jazz setting." Check out the full review here.