Spirituality in Jazz

Joel Roberts By

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The ties between jazz and the church, especially the African American church, run deep, going back to the music's formative years and continuing to the present, as three recent releases by jazz pianists attest.

Geri Allen
Timeless Portraits and Dreams

On Timeless Portraits and Dreams, Geri Allen expresses her religious faith as part of a broader vision of what jazz means to her. Backed by the peerless rhythm section of Ron Carter (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums), Allen performs a diverse set that includes her intricate original compositions, spirituals, jazz standards by Charlie Parker and George Gershwin, even a selection from a Fellini film. The album's emotional centerpiece is a powerful reworking of "I Have a Dream , Mary Lou Williams' tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with rousing vocals by Metropolitan Opera tenor George Shirley and the Atlanta Jazz Chorus. Also noteworthy are the title tune, featuring Carmen Lundy's vivid vocals and "Our Lady , Allen's tribute to Billie Holiday, with some down-home blues courtesy of Allen and her husband, trumpeter Wallace Roney. The album also includes a bonus disc featuring Shirley's moving interpretation of "Lift Every Voice and Sing , often known as the Black National Anthem. Altogether, it's a stirring set that connects the secular and the sacred.

Pete Malinverni

New York pianist Pete Malinverni's Joyful! (which includes an accompanying DVD) is an ambitious project years in the making. Though its description may sound intimidating - "a suite for gospel choir and jazz ensemble based on the Psalms of David - listening to this labor of love is no Sunday school chore. It's an accessible and powerful expression of faith that accomplishes the difficult task of bringing jazz inside the walls of the church without losing any of the music's spirit. Malinverni pulls this off by making sure the music underlying these sacred- minded proceedings is solid jazz, as performed by a top-notch quintet featuring the likes of alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and by treating his choir, from Brooklyn's Devoe Street Baptist Church, as essentially a member of the band.

Willie Pickens
JazzSpirit, Vols. 1 and 2

Finally, Chicago pianist Willie Pickens offers what he describes as sacred music in a jazz setting on his two volumes of JazzSpirit. The 20 tunes covered include a wide assortment of what's become known as 'church music', ranging from European canonical hymns to African American gospel and spirituals, including some familiar to secular music listeners. Pickens, a fine modern player and arranger, and a cast of top Chicago sidemen including the full-bodied tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, interpret these tunes in a variety of jazz styles from soul jazz to bebop and beyond. What's most surprising is how well these songs fit into a jazz context and how modern many of them sound. (Who expected a post-bop version of "Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service ?) While this concept has been tried before, seldom has it been pulled off with the skill that Pickens shows here.

Tracks and Personnel

Timeless Portraits and Dreams

Tracks: Oh Freedom; Melchezedik; Portraits and Dreams; Well Done; La Strada; I Have a Dream; Nearly; In Real Time; Embraceable You; Ah-Leu-Cha; Just for a Thrill; Our Lady (for Billie Holiday); Timeless Portraits and Dreams; Portraits and Dreams (reprise).

Personnel: Geri Allen: piano; Ron Carter: bass; Jimmy Cobb: drums; Carmen Lundy: vocals; Wallace Roney: trumpet; George Shirley: vocals; Donald Walden: tenor saxophone; Atlanta Jazz Chorus: directed by Dwight Andrews.


Tracks: Make a Joyful Noise; The Lord is Good; O, Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me and Known Me; Let the Earth Shake; Let the Sea Roar; To the Rock; Whither Shall I Run?; Merciful and Gracious; I Lift Up My Soul; It is He.

Personnel: Pete Malinverni: piano; Steve Wilson: alto saxophone; Joe Magnarelli: trumpet, flugelhorn; Todd Coolman: bass; Dwayne "Cook" Broadnax: drums; Yvette Glover, Jody Sandhaus, Afua Monk: Addo, Jacklyn LaMont: vocals.

JazzSpirit Vol. 1 & 2

Tracks: 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.


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