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Willie Pickens: JazzSpirit, Volumes 1 & 2

Mark Corroto By

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My neighbor, one of those "born again" types, told me that Jesus hates jazz. I asked her which Jesus she was referring to. When I received no response, I suggested to her it might be the neo-con Jesus who, quite frankly, can't dance.

After a bit of research, I've found there are multiple Jesuses to be found in the world. The American Jesus makes it possible for a CEO to drive his SUV through the proverbial eye of the needle. The others include the defender of the poor and downtrodden, the champion of gay rights, and alternatively, the creator of AIDS. My Jesus can dance and he is as hip as Dizzy, as timeless as Armstrong, and as out as Coltrane.

With the two volumes released as JazzSpirit, Chicago pianist Willie Pickens describes his Lord to be the God of Love with a perfect sense of swing. Pickens, who will celebrate his 75th birthday this year, is a former educator who has toured and recorded with Eddie Harris, Elvin Jones, Von Freeman and Louie Bellson. His Chicago sound is quite evident throughout. It is the sound of Gene Ammons, Malachi Thompson and Von Freeman—as well as stars of today like Eric Alexander and Frank Catalano.

JazzSpirit is a collection of solos, duos and ensemble pieces celebrating church music. Pickens presents both the European hymn and the African-American spiritual as interpreted through jazz. Although this is not a new concept—Ellington, Coltrane, Marsalis and many other jazz musicians have drawn upon inspiration from their spiritual traditions—these are two special, beautifully recorded discs.

The pianist keeps matters quite inside, but lets loose the tether a bit on occasion. For instance, his trio swings "Down By The Riverside with a foot-tapping shuffle, and his piano duos with Bethany Pickens on "God Of Grace And God Of Glory and "Doxology express a joy one doesn't expect from these pieces. Other pieces feature some inspired saxophone playing from the familiar Ari Brown to the new (at least to me) Pat Mallinger.

Pickens, a deacon at the Hyde Park Union Church on Chicago's South Side, has played and arranged music there for many years. Here he sits down for some emotional solo pieces that make you yearn for peace. He plays with a quiet patience born from years of reflection.

Americans (and Iraqis) may believe there are as many Gods as there are causes. With JazzSpirit, Willie Pickens makes a strong argument for one God of love.


Track Listing: Volume I: Let Us Break Bread Together; Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love; Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive; A Mighty Fortress; Piedad; Doxology; O My Soul Bless Your Redeemer; Here I Am Lord; Jesus Loves Me; My God IS So High. Volume II: Fairest Lord Jesus; O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How...; Down By The Riverside; O Lord You Are My God And King; We Are Marching In The Light Of God; Wade In The Water; God Of Grace And God Of Glory; When Peace Like A River; Lord, Whose Love Through Humble...; My God Is So High.

Personnel: Willie Pickens, Bethany Pickens: piano; Ari Brown, Pat Mallinger: tenor saxophone; Tito Carrillo: flugelhorn; Marlene Rosenberg, Rob Amster, Larry Gray: bass; Kobe Watkins, Robert Shy: drums.

Title: JazzSpirit, Volumes 1 & 2 | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Southport Records

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