Willie Pickens: Jazz Spirit, Volume 1 & 2

Jim Santella By

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Veteran Chicago pianist Willie Pickens began his professional career with Eddie Harris when they recorded Exodus to Jazz and etched a message for several generations to remember with smiles all around. Since then, he's worked with Clark Terry, Elvin Jones, Louie Bellson, and has issued several albums of his own. Pickens has a conservative piano style that also includes powerful flourishes and complex harmonies for emphasis.

Recorded last year, both volumes of Jazz Spirit grew out of a series of live performances at Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago.

Willie Pickens
Jazz Spirit, Volume 1

As Pickens interprets "A Mighty Fortress alone at the piano, you can feel the spiritual nature of this sacred song as it pushes gently with majestic chords and deep harmony. He squeezes every ounce of emotion from this familiar piece. Similarly, his solo interpretation of "Here I Am Lord evokes considerable passion, both from a traditional viewpoint and through his embellished harmony. Pickens serves these sacred songs with respect, but interjects his own lush harmony into each.

With his daughter Bethany on several piano duets, he expresses similar messages that characterize the confluence of jazz with the church. Their interpretation of the familiar hymn "Doxology combines a merry barrelhouse style with a traditional melody.

Guest saxophonists Pat Mallinger, Ari Brown and flugelhornist Tito Carrillo join the pianist for straight-ahead jazz interpretations. Bass and drums add considerable jazz spirit to each hymn with walking bass & ride cymbal accompaniment as well as powerful soloing. Each ensemble brings a unique jazz flavor to this sacred program.

Willie Pickens
Jazz Spirit, Volume 2

Down By the Riverside features Pickens in a trio with Rob Amster and Kobie Watkins. Here, he captures the soulful feeling that we enjoy from mainstream jazz. The hymn's traditional gospel melody comes through clear, but the pianist and his partners explore this one from several jazz angles, stretching it out with a comfortable groove.

Pickens and his daughter interpret the traditional hymn "Wade in the Water with a thrilling combination of pure melody and soulful rhythmic pride. Together, they take this one for a whirlwind ride that unleashes passionate fury over a jazz groove.

His solo interpretation of "When Peace Like a River (Is Well Within My Soul) simmers slowly with heartfelt attachment. Pickens likes to color his solo excursions with deep chords and a full palette of colors.

Tito Carrillo's brassy trumpet gives "O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High a regal luster that picks up considerable strength and drives Pickens' quartet forward with hearts on fire. The pianist takes this one in stride and turns loose a shower of emotional turmoil, making this selection one of the session's highest points.

Pickens closes with a superb trio arrangement of "My God is So High, which allows him to remind his audience once again that the soul is key to jazz. Without that heartfelt spirit, nothing matters.

Jazz Spirit, Volume 1

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

Tracks: 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.

Jazz Spirit, Volume 2

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

Tracks: Fairest Lord Jesus; O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High; 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 Service; My God is So High.

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