One can’t help but marvel at how wonderfully these time–honored spirituals and hymns lend themselves to contemporary big–band arrangements. It helps, of course, if the arranger is as sharp and seasoned as Ralph Carmichael, a resourceful “song doctor” who could probably make Lawrence Welk’s or Guy Lombardo’s book swing. And it helps further if the band itself is comprised of some of the most capable studio and big–band musicians in Southern California. Carmichael, it is quite evident, places his ample musical talents in service to his faith, but one needn’t agree with his point of view to admire and enjoy the finished product, which is high–resolution big–band Jazz. Carmichael is a no–nonsense arranger who concisely states the theme, keeps the ensemble in the foreground, leaves room for brief improvisations, then wraps things up with a strong and bracing kick. Clearly, those who wrote these heavenly old songs (pun intended) never envisioned their being played like this, but I like to think they’d have been pleased by the makeover. There are a number of imaginative touches, such as Carmichael’s deft blending of the Christian anthem, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” with the trad Jazz anthem, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” his bluesy treatment of “Amazing Grace” (with a terse but amazing alto solo by Sal Lozano) or his boppish arrangement of “Jericho.” As an aside, those who appended lyrics to the music weren’t above borrowing the occasional melody, as “Down from His Glory” is either the Italian classic “O Sole Mio” or its twin brother. Lozano is the most frequently heard soloist (he’s also featured on “Beyond the Sunset,” “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “All That Thrills My Soul”), with keyboard artist Mark Hugenberger showcased on “Pass It On” and playing at other times the “breath box” (which sounds like some sort of electronic wind instrument). Also heard at various times are alto Rusty Higgins, tenor Roger Neumann, trombonists Lloyd Ulyate and Alan Kaplan, bassist Steve Wilkinson and trumpeters Rick Baptist and Frank Szabo. They’re fine, but the real luminaries in this firmament are Carmichael’s heavenly charts, which make the enterprise glow with a celestial radiance.
Track listing: Every Time I Feel the Spirit; Beyond the Sunset; Brighten the Corner Where You Are; Abide with Me; Down from His Glory; In the Garden; Soldiers & Saints; ’Tis So Sweet; Amazing Grace; Pass It On; Fairest Lord Jesus; All That Thrills My Soul; Hiding in Thee; Jericho (45:58).
Rick Baptist, Frank Szabo, Darrel Gardner, Wayne Bergeron, Greg Prechel, trumpets; Lloyd Ulyate, Alan Kaplan, Dave Beatty, Craig Ware, trombones; Sal Lozano, Rusty Higgins, alto sax; Roger Neumann, Tom Buckner, tenor sax; Bob Carr, baritone sax; Mark Hugenberger, keyboards; Steve Wilkinson, bass; Ed Smith, drums.