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The Black Mozart 

Roy Wooten, aka Futureman, pays homage to a little-known composer with his new-world ensemble

click to enlarge MARIA GRAZIA FACCIOLA
  • Maria Grazia Facciola

Roy Wooten has succumbed to fate.

The musician commonly known as Futureman says fate is what dressed him in waistcoats, ruffled shirts and black tricornered hats like George Washington and Paul Revere once wore.

Fate, he says, is what led him to invent a piano-like instrument, organized according to the periodic table of the elements, which plays notes unheard of on Western scales. It was fate, too, he says, that led him to compose an eight-movement symphonic work inspired by the life of a man he never knew existed.

Somewhere in Nashville, Tenn., Roy Wooten explains the golden ratio — a mathematical formula — on the other end of the phone. His sentences juxtapose scattered thoughts about music with eloquent monologues about humanity.

The five-time Grammy Award-winning musician, composer and inventor is best known as the percussionist in the jazz/bluegrass band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. The band finished the final tour with its original lineup last year, but Wooten’s run-in with fate began a decade ago.

Wooten invented two pianos, the RoyEl and the Dorothy Graye — an instrument named after his mother — while performing with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

“From these pianos all these large-scale compositions and ideas started flowing ... like a part of your mind dropping through that you didn’t even know was there,” he says.

Wooten experimented with bass and melody on his new inventions. He composed a ballet, and over the course of several years, completed an eight-movement orchestral piece now known as the Black Mozart symphonic work — a new-world flurry of cello, violin, banjo, piccolo, flute and steel pan.

“When I first started composing it sounded like a lot of chickens or a cockfight,” he says, mimicking the chaotic strings section with his voice. “Then it turned into orchestrated sword fighting and bayonets.”

The music remained stagnant and was never played by musicians until Wooten discovered his unintentional muse on the cover of a book.

“I was like, ‘Who is this brother wearing my stuff?’ ” Wooten says, describing the cover of The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow. The book cover features a mixed-race man in a waistcoat and ruffled shirt.

“I opened the book and the chapters matched my movements almost to a T. It was like I was writing this guy’s story.”

The Chevalier de Saint-George, born Joseph Boulogne, was the son of an African slave and a French plantation owner on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. He rose to fame in 18th century France — the musical era of Mozart — as a celebrated fencer, violinist, composer and conductor. He was often referred to as the Black Mozart.

He later became a commander in the French Revolution, after which his music and career faded into obscurity.

“It was like I was aiming for this project the whole time,” Wooten says, unable to describe the grand correlation between his music and the life of Saint-George. “I had to invent a piano in order to create the music that would lead me to this story ... it’s not a logical thing, but maybe it’s a spiritual thing.”

Today, Wooten’s symphonic work is performed by the Black Mozart Ensemble, a cast of about eight young musicians that formed in 2006 and performs original pieces by Saint-George and Wooten’s homages to the composer.

The ensemble has recorded two albums, Ensemble Live and Black Mozart New World, and has since transformed the music into a theatrical production. The product includes a script, and elements of dance and spoken word, which explore the life of Saint-George and the relationship between classical music and the slave trade.

“Saint-George lived in one of the most intense and tumultuous times in human history,” Wooten says. “Through his eyes we see the height of the global slave trade, the American Revolution and the French Revolution set to an epic soundtrack of Mozart, Haydn and later Beethoven.”

Wooten says he plans to turn the production into a trilogy and a movie. He says the goal of the project is to honor the forgotten musician and to prove that the pen is mightier than the sword. On a deeper level, Wooten says the project has allowed him to give in to fate.

“I was working on this music before I ever heard about Saint-George,” he says, still somewhat perplexed. “You live your life, and when you look back, it’s like your life was written like a novel.”

Roy Wooten and the Black Mozart Ensemble • Fri, April 12, at 7:30 pm • SFCC Music Bldg. No. 15 • 3410 W. Fort George Wright Dr. • $12-$18 • All ages • 533-3741

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