Give the Singers Some!

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God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
That they might touch the hearts of men
And bring them back to heaven again.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Singers


Ruth Naomi Floyd
Root to the Fruit
Contour
2006

Along with her sidework with instrumentalists Charles Fambrough, Uri Caine and other jazzmen of note, composer/vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd gives voice to her own muse through her own label, Contour Records. Her fifth release continues her longstanding collaboration with pianist James Weidman, known for his accompaniment of vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson, and also features flutist James Newton, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and rhythm section aces Reggie Washington (bass) and Ralph Peterson (drums).

Root to the Fruit endeavors to illuminate the intersection at which meet jazz, its musical ancestry, and African-American Christian faith. There's a surprising amount of musical precedent for this ambition, and Floyd's eclectic program takes full advantage of it. She renders in gospel, jazz and blues hues such traditional spirituals as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and "Oh, Freedom, on which she pins her deeply felt vocal to a colorful tapestry of expressive yet exploratory, "free-jazz" blowing by the ensemble. Weidman's horn arrangement for "God is My Shepherd (from Antonin Dvorak's Biblical Songs, Opus 99, 1894) echoes Ellington while his piano accompaniment raises the meditative specter of Bill Evans.

Floyd polishes the lyrics and music of Randy Weston's "Where into a sacrificial moan drawn from the blues, lightly seasoned by earthy funk. She adapts an "Act of Contrition from Mary Lou Williams' 1972 release Mary Lou's Mass, creating a poignant slice of liturgy for Weidman, who testifies on church organ instead of piano, preaching a soulful sermon from mount Jimmy Smith.

What follows an "Act of Contrition," doctrinally as well as sequentially, is "Mercy. The album's nine- minute centerpiece emerges as serious jazz, an exploration carved out hard and strong by Thomas' tenor sax into the granite foundation hammered in place by Weidman's double-fisted piano.

Floyd's annotations cite the scriptural inspiration/reference for each song. The release further includes as a separate set of liner notes the theological commentary Root to the Fruit: A Nexus of Jazz and Theology by pastor, author and lecturer Rev. Dr. John Nunes, a contributing scholar to Modern Reformation magazine and member of the American Academy of Religion.

The Holmes Brothers
State of Grace
Alligator
2007

Wendell Holmes plays guitar, piano and sings, and Sherman Holmes plays bass and sings. When Popsy Dixon joins on drums and vocals, this trio metamorphoses into The Holmes Brothers, the Blues Foundation's 2005 Band of the Year. Their three-part harmonies are honeyed country gospel but their front-stoop funk and dark, broken-hearted tales are pure country blues.

The Holmes Brothers make every song they sing sound gospel-sacred and gutbucket-funky. Look no further for an example than Wendell's twelve-bar electric spiritual-blues "Standing in the Need of Love. He leads this pained blue moan with guitar that strips off sheets of raw, primitive sound, each layer revealing new depths of anguish like a scabbed wound, while Popsy and Sherman offer comfort with sweet vocal harmonies: Elmore James meets The Impressions.

The Brothers also present a collection of cover material that comprises roadhouse Americana, drawn from Hank Williams, Sr., George Jones, John Fogerty, Nick Lowe, Lyle Lovett, and other songwriting greats from an authentic rural tradition. Several of these covers reincarnate, practically transubstantiate, the original material. "Bad Moon Rising cooks as a hot Cajun griller, a bayou two-step, while "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding snuggles comfortably in warm country-knit acoustic and pedal steel guitar. "I Want You to Want Me, Rick Nielsen's ode to throbbing teen lust for Cheap Trick, slows all the way down to a reverential, transcendent hymn, almost a prayer.

Roseanne Cash takes Wendell's hand to stroll with him down the memory lane of Williams' "I Can't Help It if I'm Still in Love With You, and Joan Osbourne steps out to front a raucous "Those Memories of You, rampaging while soaring in the spirit of Janis Joplin. State of Grace also marks the return to recording of Levon Helm (of The Band) since his recovery from throat cancer; Helm plays drums on "Three Grey Walls and snare drum and mandolin and sings on "I've Just Seen the Rock of Ages in a voice vulnerable on the edge of quivering, high and wraithlike, cast in all the haunted emotion of this gospel spiritual.


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