When Kimmel Center jazz residency artist Doug Hirlinger premieres "Dear Philadelphia" on Saturday, his love letter to the city finds him collaborating with this town's finest improvisational minds in discussion of the city's gentrification. Poets Ursula Rucker and M'Balia Singley, guitarist Tim Motzer, and trombonist John Swana have joined drummer Hirlinger in cocomposing this soliloquy of soul, solace, and ever-present change.
"As I thought about ways to approach the residency, the words 'Dear Philadelphia' popped into my head," says Hirlinger. The drummer lives just off Stenton Avenue in Mount Airy and is fascinated by the changes happening in the city, not to mention his immediate block. "Prices are up and housing stock is down," Hirlinger says. "With all this gentrification, there's a feeling here that you'd better lock in your housing situation now before it's too late. I knew this rapid change had to be part of how this piece was going to take shape. With that, I knew I wanted to fuse my acoustic drumming with computer-generated electronic sounds."
Hirlinger also knew that he wanted Rucker, Motzer, Singley, and Swana to be a part of the piece because "their different sounds, approaches, perspectives, and personalities on one palette seemed exciting."
Every member of the "Dear Philadelphia" composing team lives in different areas: Motzer has lived in and conducted the business of his 1k Records in Fishtown for the last 10 years. "I'm surrounded by gentrification," says Motzer. "I'm in the thick of it now with new houses, restaurants, and people from New York diving into a neighborhood that 10 to 12 years ago, one might not have entered." Motzer says "Dear Philadelphia" explores the fact that "longtime settled folks" are being forced to change their lives as neighborhoods change. "Our musical and lyrical point of view suggests a positive activism of people working together for the overall good," says Motzer. "The impressionism in this music reminds us that there is always a beautiful way, and never only one solution."
Since the mid-'90s, Rucker has lent her vocal poetry — "I hate the phrase 'spoken word' " she says — and its mix of the incendiary and the peacemaking to recordings by the Roots, King Britt & Sylk 130, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and "Little" Louie Vega. Rucker's own albums such as 2001's Supa Sista and 2006's Ma'at Mama have won her an international fan base. Yet, as far afield as her work or fame may be, she always returns to Philly and her family. She is "so Philly that sometimes I just have to check myself," she says with a laugh.
"I've lived in Germantown for the last 16 years and it's had everything to do with what I wrote for 'Dear Philadelphia,'" says Rucker, calling the "gentrifiers" in her neighborhood "hot and heavy. You can see them spying. Every day new buildings are being erected. Because I know so many community activists, I hear about how developers are going hard for Germantown. It puts us all between that rock and a hard place, because we all want the finer things in life — the new restaurants, the cool shops — but, at what cost?"
Rucker isn't only scared about how to teach the traditions of her neighborhood and her culture to her sons and their girlfriends, while change is so rapid. She wants to know: "What's going to happen to the round-the-way girl when Germantown is gentrified? Are you gonna remember her, her glory, and her history? That's what 'Dear Philadelphia' is for me. That's how I feel about this looming beast."
Rucker loves the "Dear Philadelphia" musical mix of jazz structuralism and open-ended improvisation ("I love having room"). It plays into the manner in which her writing and sing-speak vocalese has changed since her start. "I am freer and braver now," Rucker says in regard to her writing.
Most of her writing, on albums such as 2003's Silver or Lead, has embraced a larger picture and speaks of the world and its Technicolor tales. Yet, within the last year she has focused on locally driven projects and Philly-inspired stories.
"Philly pours out of me so much that I have to calm down and rein myself in," says Rucker, as if beaming with pride. "It's so easy to be here and celebrate this place with all of its bumps and all its bruises and all of its bright spots. I've been doing the Philly-centric things because I have been getting so many fascinating calls to do so — I am called to be here. And I'm cool with that. There's nothing more interesting about having unique opportunities to champion this city."