The ancients doubted the existence of black swans. The Roman poet Juvenal actually wrote “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan” to express that something was as rare and as real as the swan whose feathers are black. Most recently the Lebanese scientist Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed a Black Swan Theory that explained in no simple terms that some events come as a surprise and create rippling effects though most are often justified in one manner or another.

All of which brings me, if you forgive my detour, to express like our Roman predecessor that the black swans appearing in the superb and appositely titled BLACK SWANS CD released by the PARNASSUS label (PACD 96067) are the real deal, and that, echoing Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the neglect they endured at the hands of the music world of their time is not surprising yet simply unjustifiable.

The grouping of musical Rara Avis featured in this surprising collection of performances by black singers and instrumentalists are not jazz or blues artists. Here they are clearly defined by what they play and sing and how they play and sing it: compositions by Delibes, Dell’Acqua, Arditi, Leoncavallo, Donizetti, Gounod, Haydn, Fauré, and Verdi idiomatically played and sung side by side with Spirituals and instrumental pieces by black composers.

Some of us have long been familiar with the great Roland Hayes (1887-1976). Arguably the first black singer to achieve a modicum of the fame and fortune he so richly deserved, the late American lyric tenor is heard here in a poignantly sung brace of spirituals in which his honeyed lyric voice and impeccable musicality achieve complete perfection. He then switches musical hats to great effect in well-sung renditions of Vesti la giubba and Una furtiva lagrima, the latter ended with a ringing top B-flat.

On the other hand, Florence Cole Talbert (1890-1961), totally unknown to me, only partially fulfilled her dreams of a career in opera, even after three years in the Europe of the time of her youth. Long before Marian Anderson, Grace Bumbry, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Reri Grist, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, and other great black singers of later generations succeeded in breaking down the color-barrier, the America of her time kept soprano Florence Cole Talbert from achieving what her sensitive singing and supple lyric voice could have brought her nowadays.

In the BLACK SWANS CD Ms. Cole proves her mettle in an elegantly sung group of salon pieces that includes The Last Rose of Summer, Eva Dell’Acqua’s Vilanelle, Arditi’s coloratura warhorse Il Baccio, and the spiritual Nobody knows the Trouble I’ve seen.
Some of the other vocalists in the BLACK SWANS collection include baritones Harry Burleigh and Edward H.S. Boatner, contralto Hattie King Reavis, and the silvery-voiced coloratura soprano Antoinette Smythe Garnes singing Caro nome and an abbreviated Ah fors’é lui… Sempre libera, both sung with stylish panache, and a lovely rendition of Haydn’s My mother binds me bind my hair.

The pre-electric vagaries of early recordings (most of these come from around 1917-1922) are less kind to instruments like the violin or the piano, which tend to come off sounding brittle, or off pitch, or metallic, even after the fastidiously re-mastered tracks, hence my bypassing commentary on the compositions of R. Nathaniel Dett’s and Clarence Cameron White represented in BLACK SWANS.

The engineering and re-mastering, along with the exquisitely researched and annotated accompanying booklet are the joint labor of love of the Parnassus triumvirate team of Leslie Gerber, Tim Brooks, and Steve Smolian, making BLACK SWANS in my list, at least one of the top albums of the year.

Rafael de Acha