No sooner had pianist Raymond Jackson spun out the first few shimmering bars of William Grant Still's "Phantom Chapel" than a stunned silence swept Lisner Auditorium. These sounds, as intriguingly evocative of musical impressionism as Claude Debussy's "La Cathedrale Engloutie," had evidently reached many ears for the first time.
Of the nine piano pieces by black composers that Jackson selected for his noon recital yesterday, perhaps not one was familiar. The soft-spoken Howard professor, who is working on an anthology of piano music by blacks, presented his finds in a historical framework, grouping pieces according to classical, folk, spiritual and blues influences. In his informal comments between pieces, he would tap out a cakewalk rhythm or an example of major/minor ambiguity in the blues.
The program began with an adagio by Chevalier de St. Georges, a musician in the court of Louis XVI. The piece's imaginative harmonies, contained within a simple gracefully proportioned structure, evoked without directly imitating contemporaries Haydn and C.P.E. Bach. Also a highly personal response to classical stimuli was Ulysses Kay's "Invention No. 4," with its imaginative use of a four-note pattern.
Nowhere were Jackson's comments about the convergence of European and African idioms in black piano music better illustrated than in Robert Nathaniel Dett's "In the Bottoms" suite excerpts. Sometimes, tensions between the two traditions came to the surface. Where the composer aimed for exuberant, vigorous expression in the "Juba Dance," one could sense the composer's ambivalent attitude toward the conflicting requirements of traditional form.
Overall, Jackson's restrained, conscientious playing matched his oratorial style, but it lacked an impassioned flair when this would have suited the products of romanticism and the blues.