Margaret Bonds is considered one of America’s most important 20th Century composers of color. And yet, because most of her work remains unpublished, little of it gets recorded. Which is why I was so excited to get this release.

Malcolm J. Merriweather, the conductor of the Dessoff Choirs in New York City, has become a champion of Bonds’ music. This release features a major work by Bonds, as well as several songs sung by Merriweather.

Bonds had a close relationship with Langston Hughes, and with one exception all the works on this album are settings of his poems.

“The Ballad of the Brown King” is a work of incredible beauty. And not just a major choral work, but a Christmas-themed one. Everything about the Ballad sounds fresh and innovative.

The text focusses on Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men who, by tradition is dark-skinned. Hughes’ poem makes him a representative of all people of color, taking his place alongside the others at Jesus’ birth.

Bonds’ music is equally innovative. There are echoes of spirituals in the music, as well as a nod to Caribbean rhythms. But her neo-modal harmonies give the music a timeless quality and weaken the ties to traditional Western classical music.

But those ties are still there. And that, I think, makes this such a wonderful work. To me, the music, while celebrating African-American culture, also transcends race. This is Christmas music we all can — and should — enjoy.

Under Merriweather’s direction the soloists, choirs, and ensemble deliver a heartfelt performance.

The additional songs, for baritone and harp, feature Merriweather as a singer. His rich, creamy baritone seems to sculpt each phrase is precisely the right manner.

Don’t be fooled by the ho-hum cover art. This is an important release of exceptional music. Margaret Bonds was a gifted composer — no other modifiers needed.

Margaret Bonds: The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs
Laquita Mitchell, soprano; Lucia Bradford, mezzo-soprano; Noah Stewart, tenor; Ashley Jackson, harp
The Dessoff Choirs & Orchestra; Malcolm J. Merriweather, conductor
Avie AV 2413