Internationally acclaimed food artist and singer Alexander Smalls releases Let Us Break Bread Together on Smalls House Productions, his new collaboration with Outside in Music. Let Us Break Bread Together marks Smalls’ first outing in a series of curated works honoring the cultural sanctity and richly complex tradition of African American spirituality. Over the past three decades, the world-renowned chef and author has been recognized around the world for his boundless creativity in and out of the kitchen, receiving accolades from Food & Wine magazine and The New York Times.
Before embarking on a now-legendary career as a chef and restaurateur, Smalls performed around the world as a highly sought-after opera singer. A resounding and meticulous mastery of thought-provoking material won him international attention, as well as GRAMMYs and Tony Awards for his contributions to the Houston Grand Opera cast recording of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1977. Now After Over 30 years away from the microphone, the James Beard Award-winning and acclaimed baritone returns to the studio as a seasoned musician and explorer, eager to translate the power of a musical canon he sees as resonating from generation to generation but in Endangered.
“I chose to create a recording of Negro Spiritual because it’s probably one of the most misunderstood music on the planet,” says the South Carolina native. “It was created out of a need to achieve something extraordinarily important to Africans that was taken away from them, namely their tribal music. Their songs, their drums, their dances – everything that frightened their slave owners. All they were allowed to do was sing religious music. They weren’t allowed to read, so they were read from scriptures and taught Bible verses and European hymns. And in their uniqueness and their clever way they took the scriptures, the psalms, the Bible stories, and they translated that into their folk tunes, their heritage music and basically created a whole new tribal ritual under the umbrella of Christianity. I want to bring that music back in the foreground, in the lives of ordinary people who can appreciate it like me.
Mixed and mastered by Dave Darlington, Let Us Break Bread Together demands nuanced attention from like-minded artists. For the project, Smalls and co-producers Ulysses Owens, Jr. and Robert Sadin brought together two groups with diverse and creative voices, including Joseph Joubert on organ (piano tracks 4 and 11); Cyrus Chestnut on piano; Reuben Rogers on bass; and Owens on drums and percussion for tracks 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11; as well as Kevin Hayes on piano and Fender Rhodes; John Ellis on saxophone and bass clarinet; Ben Williams on bass; and Owens on drums and percussion for tracks 2, 3, 6 and 8. To convey the intention of the album, it was essential to bring together skilled improvisers who revel in the melody – an attribute Smalls considers essential to the interpretation of the African-American spiritual tradition.
“Think of the richness of a melody,” says Smalls. “Think of how a melody starts in its soul, its spirit, its spirit. People bring these amazing sounds sometimes from the depths of who they are – it’s like a moan that hurts. And the beauty of that is, once you have this extraordinary melody, then you can really begin to build a symphony of ideas – sounds, sights and collisions of human experience. There is nothing greater.”
Smalls’ artistic impulse is one of exploration and conservation. Whether in the kitchen or behind the mic, his creativity celebrates the individual and cultural contributions of the African diaspora and a shared ancestral heritage. As he releases his inaugural series, Smalls is unveiling his new culinary concept in Dubai: Alkebulan. “Alkebulan was Africa’s first written word and Africa’s original name until the Europeans arrived and couldn’t pronounce it,” says Smalls. “It means Garden of Eden, Mother of Humanity. But Alkebulan is not just a dining hall; it is an organized artistic engagement where culture, food and drink – music, fashion and l “art – define the heritage of a people. You learn, through this immersive environment, the influence of Africa on history and the world. It’s quite extraordinary.”
This compulsion to organize and unite impulses through Let Us Break Bread Together. In addition to arranging hymns and classics such as “Wade in the Water,” “Poor Little Jesus Boy” and the album’s title track, Smalls and his fellow artists shine a light on contemporary African-American standards such as “St. Thomas” by Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock. “Watermelon man.” In the tradition of Miles Davis on Milestones, the seasoned tenor refrains from playing on certain tracks, allowing hallowed instrumental moments to develop and linger. “There came a time when I realized it was okay not to be the musician on stage but to be part of the production that brings the music to the stage or keeps it alive in some way. “, he says.
That realization, in part, led to a years-long partnership with Owens, his friend and artistic collaborator whom he met one night at Minton’s, where Smalls had launched the resurrected club’s award-winning partner restaurant, The Cecil, in 2013. . When a young artist introduced them, their affinity exploded. “He and I had the most immediate intense connection. I just thought he was one of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. His energy was otherworldly,” he said. said Smalls, who then tapped Owens to create the club’s cutting-edge programming. . “There’s nothing quite like sitting down with someone who’s action-oriented like you.”
Smalls had been conceptualizing a cataloging of the African-American spiritual for years. “I have long since become an activist and advocate,” he says. When he felt the time was right to move forward on the project, Ulysses was by his side, along with Sadin, another esteemed collaborator and GRAMMY Award-winning industry legend whom Smalls had met decades earlier. through friend and former colleague, revered soprano Kathleen Battle. Owens and Smalls feel honored to have transformed Let Us Break Bread Together from concept to reality working alongside the visionary titan who has produced across all genres including projects for Battle, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter , Marcus Roberts, Sting, Placido Domingo and Florence Quivar. “Bob is a musician’s musician,” says Smalls. “Brilliantly talented, brilliantly crazy. What he brings to expression – of all music – is unique and extraordinary.”
Returning to the studio to record Let Us Break Bread Together proved healing and exhilarating for Smalls, who spent the early years of his career focusing on disciplined execution of sound. Today, he focuses on the heart of intention. “Now I’m more interested in, ‘Did I make the musical statement I wanted to make? Did I perform the emotion? The expression?’ I don’t hear the note as much as I feel it. The only kind of barometer I have is, “What did that do to me? Sometimes musical expression is as much of a surprise to me as ‘she could be for my public [laughs]. It’s a whole new mindset.”
Let Us Break Bread Together was released today via Smalls House Productions, an Outside in Music imprint created in collaboration with Smalls. Let Us Break Bread Together is available on all streaming services.