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Classical Album Of The Week: Itzhak Perlman Protégé Randall Goosby Debuts Spectacularly with 'Roots'

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Violinist Randall Goosby’s major label debut, Roots, is unique in several ways. It’s the first release from a 24-year-old violinist who debuted with the Jacksonville Symphony at nine, shared a stage with the New York Philharmonic at 13, and has called his famous professors at Juilliard—Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho—mentors for the past decade.

Then there’s the fact that instead of choosing a well-recognized concerto from the classical canon, he’s opted to focus on works both old and new that have never been recorded or released commercially.

There’s method here, with very little madness— except for the feeling radiating from Goosby’s visceral sound that might be interpreted as madness in the best, most electrifying way. With Roots, Goosby draws a throughline from the 1890s to the present, foregrounding the work of Black composers from then, now, and several periods in between, in addition to presenting thrilling new interpretations of selections from Dvorak and Gershwin that owe much of their aesthetic to Black folk music and traditional Negro spirituals.

Goosby’s motivation here doesn’t appear to come from a desire to align with the fashions; it’s more a desire to self-actualize, to tell a truly personal story through his music.

“If it weren’t for these composers, these artists, and this music, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today,” said Goosby in the album's press release. “This recording is a tribute to their lives and experiences, and their dedication to creating this art that we all love.”

Perlman, Goosby’s venerable mentor at Juilliard, echoed this to the New York Times in June, adding that Goosby—who was raised in Memphis by a Korean American mother and African American father—“knows who he is, and he wants to make sure everybody does as well.”

Roots’ opener, “Shelter Island,” is a nod to Perlman and the summer camp-like environs of the Perlman Music Program (PMP), located on the titular Long Island summer hideaway. Goosby and the piece’s composer, bassist Xavier Dubois Foley, both spent summers on the PMP campus as teenagers.

The feel is pastoral, with a bluegrassy motif that evokes the transcendental, suggesting the natural environment at PMP was just as memorable as the expert instruction and esprit de corps. You can almost smell the inside of a woodsy cabin, the preponderance of pine, and a dinnertime cookout with paper plates and tree stumps as seats.

Musically, “Shelter Island” reminds me of my favorite collaborations of Americana-type artists like Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn with string ensembles like Brooklyn Rider. Goosby and Foley, with a souped-up musical EZ-Pass, speed through checkpoints separating American roots music from classical without being waylaid. They can exist in any musical world they choose, and no one’s asking for any tribute. Only that they keep playing.

Which Goosby does, over 18 more tracks, with pianist Zhu Wang joining for several of them.

But Blue/s Forms Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s three-movement suite for solo violin, is where Goosby formally introduces his own singular presence with authority. You’ll hear a tapestry of influences here, from Baroque counterpoint to Black folk music and American Romanticism, but what you’ll feel is Goosby’s bluesy navigation of conflict. The man playing this music walks a blade’s edge of tension; he’s shrewd and circumspect, yet plays with a fire from his core that he implores you to acknowledge. The third movement, “Jettin’ Blue/s,” carries this narrative to a climax that recalls something—or maybe everything—from Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography; it’s a sophisticated mixture of primal urge and intellect, with a thrilling resolution borne at least partly of exhaustion.

Down-record you’ll find music by the man Perkinson was named for, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Playing an arrangement of “Deep River” for piano and violin by Maud Powell, Goosby and Wang deliver a take so sweeping and lyrical that it might make you miss a home you never even knew you had.

The pair render this composition—one that Coleridge built from the melody of the well-known Negro spiritual of the same name—in a manner that reveals a side to Goosby yet unseen, or heard: the romantic. There’s a tenderness, a sense of longing and loss in his sound that Goosby just shouldn’t be able to communicate with just a 24-year-old’s life experience. Yet there it is.

And then there’s what feels like a violinist’s rite of passage that happens to be a perfect thematic fit, a four-tune Porgy and Bess medley. Roll your eyes if you must, but keep your ears otherwise unoccupied. Goosby doesn’t so much play the Jascha Heifetz arrangements for violin as much as he owns them. His familiarity with the material allows him to texture it in way that feels different at times, yet familiar and correct. Wang’s accompaniment makes that possible. Anyone who’s heard these tunes thousands of times will recognize the subtle choices made and chances taken—in phrasing, dynamics, pacing, etc.—that make this particular interpretation worth listening to.

But if Gershwin’s inclusion here strikes you as the equivalent of “Freebird,” try a suite of tunes you’re certain never to have heard before.

Florence Price became the first Black female composer to have her work performed by a major American orchestra, when, in 1933, the Chicago Symphony, under the direction of Frederick Stock, performed her First Symphony. After Price died in the 1950s, though, memory of her talent and accomplishments faded away—until 2009, when dozens of old manuscripts were recovered from her old summer home in St. Anne, Ill. that was being prepared for demolition. Among the recovered were three Price pieces now making their major label debut right along with Goosby.

It’s of course impossible to know a dead composer’s intent, but it’s hard to imagine Price would be anything less than very, very pleased with Goosby and Wang’s dignified and moving renderings.

Heartbreaking and wistful, the cinematic “Adoration” is built equally well for a the-way-things-were or what-could-have-been retrospective montage. Filmmakers, take note.

The two Fantasies, meanwhile, are the showstoppers, soaring and rhapsodic and Romantic but also distinctly American. Wang, also a Juilliard alum who now studies at Curtis, is every bit a co-headliner here. He beautifully frames Goosby’s lead lines, yes, but is also very much a force of his own, especially on the second Fantasie where his playing directs the transitions in and out of major plot points.

You know going into records like these that you’ll be dazzled technically by wunderkind musicians. But for those musicians to present an album this emotionally mature and affecting—that’s humbling.