Sweet Honey in the Rock will mark its 40th anniversary next year with big changes.
In May of this year, longtime member Ysaye Barnwell, who first joined the all-female African-American a cappella ensemble in 1979, retired, making the group a quartet for the first time in many years. When Bernice Johnson Reagon, who retired in 2004, founded the group in Washington, D.C., in 1973, it was also a quartet, but rather than go back to that setup the group decided to do something completely different.
Enter bassist Parker McAllister, who will be a guest artist on tour with Sweet Honey in the Rock through the end of the 40th anniversary celebrations next year. McAllister was featured in the jazz trio that performed with Sweet Honey for two concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater in 2011. Recordings from the shows, a tribute to Odetta, Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, were released this year on a double CD titled “A Tribute — Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center.”
“Now that we are basically a quartet again, we decided we would ask our bass player, Parker McAllister, who works with the tribute show, to come be a part of [the regular show] without just recreating Ysaye’s lines,” said Carol Maillard, Sweet Honey’s artistic director and one of two original members still in the fold today, from her New York City home. “We sing a lot of a cappella, but when Parker comes in he plays a completely instrumental [part], where he’s feeling the bass. And it feels like, wow — he improvises, does lines differently. He makes us something that I think is very rich — I would say rich in terms of textures.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 2nd St., Troy
HOW MUCH: $42, $35, $25
MORE INFO: 273-0038, www.troymusichall.org
Adding instruments into the mix isn’t as foreign to the group’s aesthetic as it may seem, however.
“We had a piano player for quite a few years — she didn’t play on everything, but we sang her songs and some other arrangements,” Maillard said. “Our first album features violin, bass, piano and percussion, our very first CD [self-titled, released in 1976]. For a long time then, the group didn’t work that way — Diana Wharton was the piano player, and she moved to New York, so that part of our experience kind of waned away. We didn’t do anything with a full-on band again until 2003.”
In recent years, instruments have become more common on Sweet Honey’s stage. Last year, Sweet Honey performed with an orchestra for the first time, singing original lyrics to composer William Banfield’s “Symphony 10: Affirmations for a New World,” a piece commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Maillard and the rest of the group — fellow original member Louise Robinson, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil and sign language interpreter Shirly Childress — are preparing for next year’s 40th anniversary celebration, dubbed “Forty & Fierce,” with a fall tour that heads to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Friday night. McAllister will join the group on some dates of the tour, while guest vocalist Navasha Daya Hill will perform at others, including the Music Hall show. The Music Hall show is also a benefit for the YWCA NorthEastern New York in Schenectady.
Gearing up for 2014
This will be a standard Sweet Honey show, but next year’s tour will be anything but. The group plans to create a bigger show than it ever has before, complete with custom lighting, video and photo slide shows and backing musicians.
“We want set lighting and effects to create a mood and a balance — just really to create a really nice vibe for the shows, so that whatever the topics are that are being addressed, whatever stories are being told, whatever it is we are doing would be enhanced,” Maillard said.
To raise money for the project, in August the band began a two-month fan-funding campaign at indiegogo.com. The campaign ends today just before midnight. When Maillard spoke with the Gazette, the group had raised just over $11,000 of the $35,000 goal. All funds raised will go to the group even if the goal is not met, unlike Kickstarter, which uses an all-or-nothing approach.
“We don’t have sponsors or donors, we just have the work we do onstage, so we had to figure out how to actually have some of the money to do [the anniversary tour],” Maillard said. “It’s been very challenging for us — we’re just really at barely one-third of the money that we asked for, which is kind of surprising and a little baffling. There have been so many amazing fans, everyone who has given — it’s just been phenomenal when we see any amount of money that comes in. people who say, ‘Here’s 10 bucks’ — well, somebody had to dig deep to do that.”
Fan-funding has also allowed Sweet Honey to actively engage fans in the 40th anniversary celebration. For a group known for its social and political commentary over the years, it’s a connection that makes sense.
“It really is not just a celebration for us — it’s a celebration for them, our fans,” Maillard said. “The reason Sweet Honey still sings is so much based on the fans wanting to hear the music, and needing the music in their lives.”
Beyond the anniversary, Maillard is unsure of what direction Sweet Honey will take.
The group may continue as a quartet again, or they may find a permanent replacement for Barnwell.
“We can’t stay in the way Sweet Honey used to be or has always been,” Maillard said. “We have to bring new ideas, new issues, new music and new experiences, for ourselves as well as for our audiences, and they seem to embrace it as long as they get some of the Sweet Honey they know.”