Although jazz musicians have been dabbling with spiritual music for years, few have combined the two into an entire worship service. Ronald Jenkins, the musical director of First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio, is not one to shy away from such a task. His past achievements include a service comprised of Mozart's music and a patriotic Fourth of July service, and the Christmas service retains the services of members of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Although a service made up entirely of jazz and spirituals is a little off the beaten path, the church claims two talented jazz musicians among its members, a top-notch choir, and a congregation willing to embrace experiments such as these.
This recording captures the music from the service (omitting the sermon and readings) and by and large demonstrates the keen arranging skills of pianist Bradley Sowash. Sowash has spent a large part of his career recording appealing jazzy religious music for solo piano; here, several selections from those recordings are arranged for a full choir and jazz quintet. Many of the songs not surprisingly feature a light, engaging style that is reminiscent of Vince Guaraldiafter all, most people don't want anything too edgy before noon. Most of the songs are old spirituals and hymns sung fairly straight by the choir with a hint of jazz underneath and a brief solo that pokes out now and then.
Although most of the service sticks to the familiar, the quintet does get to play some straight-ahead jazz in the two pieces by trumpeter Tom Battenberg that bookend the service and a moody version of "Poor, Wayfaring Stranger that divides the service in two. Once again Sowash's crisp, bouncy playing guides the quintet through the pieces, and Battenberg and saxophonist Pete Mills contribute sparkling solos that surely rattled the collection plates.
Although a project of this sort will always be greeted with skepticism by jazz lovers, for the most part the music from the service successfully combines jazz chops with gospel singing. Sacred Jazz and Spirituals leans more toward the spiritual than the secular, but surely there are some churchgoing jazz fans out there who will be delighted to hear it. It's likely that, given the popularity of the jazz service the first time around, First Community Church will do it again. All involved are commended for successfully bringing jazz, quite literally, to the masses.
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Personnel: Bradley Sowash: piano; Tom Battenberg: trumpet; Pete Mills: saxophone; Terry Douds: bass; Jim Curlis: drums; The First Community Church Chancel Choir; Ronald Jenkins, director.