Jazz Vespers Debuts at Abyssinian Baptist Church


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Jazz at Abyssinain: A Swinging Pre-Holiday Vesper
Abyssinian Baptist Church
New York, New York
November 23, 2008

From the thoughtful, ruminative probing of Cyrus Chestnut to the massive choir-like outpourings of an ensemble led by pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs, Jazz at Abyssinian: A Swinging Pre-Holiday Vesper provided a cornucopia of sound that consistently had the Harlem crowd recently at Abyssinian Baptist Church on its feet with wild applause.

Alto saxophonist Brandon Primus fronted a makeshift band with more than a passing interest in blending popular music with jazz nuances, and the crossover effect was fascinatingly invoked with the group's version of Donny Hathaway 's "This Christmas" and the traditional carol "What Child Is This?" But Primus displayed his full control of the horn during his solo on "Silent Night," and with utilization of circular breathing that was in no way a gimmick.

Nor was there anything gimmicky about the treatment of tunes by vocalists Suzanne Woodard and Eunice Newkirk, both with intimate ties to the legendary, 200-year-old church. Backed by a rhythm section with Sharpe Radway on piano, Stanley Banks on bass; and Phil Young on drums, the singers were as vibrant and bouncy with their blues as they were reflective and introspective on their ballads.

Woodard's plea on "Make Someone Happy" was almost visceral, and Newkirk made hundreds of listeners more than cheerful and ready to let the good times roll when she rocked the Lord's place with her gut- bucket strut while confessin' that she'd "rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log."

Chestnut's moments at the keyboard were a distillation of famous styles, from Art Tatum to James P. Johnson to Errol Garner. On an unnamed blues number, he began with a slow ostinato beat that gradually evolved into a stride format to end with a flourish of notes with all the earmarks of ragtime giant Scott Joplin. His rendition of the Black National Anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was a study in lovely tonality with a mixture of colorful chord variations.

The quiet, contemplative mood Chestnut established in the sanctuary was soon replaced by a series of rousing tunes from Gumbs' ensemble, including saxophonist Roger Byam, bassist Marcus McLaurine, drummer Payton Crossley, and percussionist Gary Fritz. Their collective thunder filled every belfry and apse in the church during Gumbs' composition "Sikhulu Shange," dedicated to the long-term businessman who was recently evicted from his location on 125th Street.

Always a politically-conscious musician, Gumbs' tune had a pounding, repetitive feeling that was reminiscent of the township music of South Africa, a song he also dedicated to the recently departed Miriam Makeba. All Byam needed upfront with him was Hugh Masekela's trumpet for the mbaqanga beat to have been complete. Vocalist "M"—and an "m" or two more would be appropriate—gave the momentum more oomph as she had done earlier on "It Had To Be You."

What resulted on this afternoon was a kind of community sing with a simple melody resounding and echoing throughout the church, and it gave credence to Rev. Calvin Butts' suggestion that jazz was really a misconstrued "Jah" with biblical references. With guidance and direction from Ron West, Stephen Johnson, and the emceeing of Sheila Anderson of WBGO-FM, the vespers at Abyssinian made a glorious debut. Already, according to Primus, plans are underway for a February concert, which will give the concept more reach and stability.

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