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(GVE/Sunnyside 4102 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/11/2008)
From time to time, African-American Gospel music has enjoyed periods of popularity among the wider audience. In past decades artists such as Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson have achieved popular success with what were called "spirituals." Lately, a younger generation of both black and white performers have been taking renewed interest in the old spirituals, especially in the context of the mini revival of traditional folk music that is currently taking place. Groups like Ollabelle and performers such as Michelle Shocked, Merrie Amsterburg, Mike Farris and others have been turning their attention to reviving the old songs, and some traditional groups like the Blind Boys of Alabama have found new popularity among secular audiences.
This week, we have a performer who mixes blues, R&B and jazz into some old African-American Gospel tunes, and wraps it up in a New Orleans ambience. It's Liz McComb, and her newly-released recording is called The Spirit of New Orleans.
Liz McComb is a native of Ohio who, like so many soul and jazz singers grew up singing in her church. In fact, her mother was the pastor at a Pentacostal congregation in Cleveland. Her brother and sister were also singers, and they turned Liz on to jazz. She began performing professionally and ended up going on tours of Europe, where there is an enthusiastic audience for African American Gospel. She ended up settling in Paris, following in the footsteps of such performers as Josephine Baker up to contemporary jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. Though she spends her time in Europe, where her audience is concentrated, she had always had a desire to draw on the New Orleans traditions, where the cross-cultural stew of African, French, English, and Caribbean influences came together to form jazz and serve as the foundation for generations of popular music styles, and old spirituals like When the Saints Go Marching In are to be found everywhere. And New Orleans was birthplace of Mahalia Jackson.
Liz McComb was visiting a Gospel workshop in Mississippi and met Eric Brown who led a Gospel group called Charity, and brought up the idea of collaborating on a project. This led to what would become the opening track on the CD. Ms. McComb then worked with a varying cast of New Orleans players, some from jazz, some from soul and funk, to create CD that again takes a creative approach to the some old Gospel standards, and serves up a few originals songs convincingly in the style.
Ms. McComb plays some piano herself, but is joined by such players as drummer Herlin Riley, of the Winton Marsalis group, Byron Johnson on additional keyboards, along with the late Willy Tee of the Meters.
The CD opens with the song that inspired the rest of the recording, Over My Head, which features the Gospel vocal group Charity. The track captures the spirit of the music with lots of energy. <<>>
The traditional Gospel song that is always intertwined with New Orleans as the theme for a classic New Orleans funeral is Just a Closer Walk with Thee. Ms. McComb and company turn it into a strong soul-influenced performance. <<>>
Interestingly, the tracks that seem most like "the old get-up-in-church and join the chorus" songs are some of the originals. A song called The Big Mess, was ispired by something a mundame as the messiness of her manager's hotel room. The band really cooks on the track. <<>>
Another old song is given a different twist. Old Man River is not actually Gospel song, having been written by Tin Pan Alley composers Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for the musical Showboat. Ms. McComb and her band give it a slow, jazzy approach. <<>>
One of the definite highlights of the CD is the original song We Are More, which features hints of African rhythmic influence. <<>>
At a slower rhythmic pace is another original song Broken Heart, which features the Gospel chorus and weaves blues into the lyrics about holding communion. <<>>
A full exploration of the New Orleans music scene must include some Cajun and Zydeco scenes. You've Got to Move features just Bruce Barnes' accordion with Ms. McComb's piano. The song is taken at a much slower tempo that one often hears this song. <<>>
A song which a lot of the younger bands are doing these days, Ain't No Grave is given a great treatment, with Byron Johnson's bluesy, jazzy piano accompanying Ms. McComb's transcendant vocal -- at once righteous and steeped in the blues. <<>>
Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans with its singular musical history, has been on a lot of people's minds. And given the nearly Biblical scale of the disaster and its aftermath, New Orleans' Gospel traditions have been given new currency. The Blind Boys of Alabama did their latest CD with New Orleans musicians. Interestingly, Liz McComb's The Spirit of New Orleans was actually recorded in 2001, well before Katrina. It was originally released in Europe to considerable popularity. But now it's being issued here in the US, Ms. McComb's native country, where she is not as well-known. It's a generally fine album that delivers the spirit of the music with some excellent players and Ms. McComb's powerful but refined voice. There are some moments that are stronger than others, but the CD largely avoids slipping into cliches and some of the show-biz productions that used to accompany the attempts to bring spirituals to general audiences.
Sonically, the CD gets about a B-minus from me. There's excessive volume compression -- everything is pushed to be loud, and the bass is rather heavy in the mix. Ms. McComb's voicals are generally well-recorded.
The Spirit of New Orleans, now just being released in the US, is a excellent addition to the current spate of African-American Gospel influenced recordings being issued. It shows what great music the old Gospel songs were irrespective of their message.
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