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Music Reviews
1:24 pm
Mon March 12, 2012

Gospel Meets Jazz, With Unpredictable Results

Jazz musicians, even agnostic ones, have a soft spot for gospel. It's part of the foundation of American music, an essential language like the blues. That doesn't mean they treat gospel tunes reverently or gingerly. From Louis Armstrong on down, jazz musicians have seized on hymns and spirituals as a starting point for improvisation. Now, two new records showcase contrasting approaches that can be spun out of old-time religious tunes.

Charles Mingus' approach to gospel has inspired generations of jazz musicians, including Don Byron. Byron and his New Gospel Quintet chase gospel's extroverted side, those toe-tapping jubilee-style rave-ups, on Love, Peace, and Soul. Many of their arrangements open with a vocal chorus, followed by solo turns that travel far from what's printed in the hymnbook. Pianist Xavier Davis nudges gospel's simple harmonies into a modern jazz context.

The solos on Byron's new work are certainly high spirited — almost Saturday-night boisterous. Sometimes, though, we turn to gospel for calm reflection, and this is where Hank Jones and Charlie Haden shine.

The second gospel collaboration between Jones and Haden, Come Sunday, was recorded a few months before Jones died in 2010. It is transfixingly effortless music — a conversation between masters, built around these solid, reassuring melodies they've heard (and likely played) for decades.

Sometimes jazz improvisation has a muscle-flexing, look-what-I-can do aspect. Not this music. Jones and Haden are long past the point of trying to impress anybody. As they shut out the chatter of the modern world, the two go searching for a higher truth, a moment's peace. In these sturdy old songs of faith, they find it.


Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're listening to some music you might hear in church, but not in the style you'd expect. Two new jazz albums reinterpret gospel songs, but in very different ways.

Tom Moon has this review of both albums - one from Don Byron, the other from Hank Jones and Charlie Haden.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Jazz musicians, even non-religious ones, have a soft spot for gospel. It's part of the foundation of American music, an essential language, like the blues. That doesn't mean they treat gospel tunes gingerly. From Louis Armstrong on down, jazz performers have seized on hymns and spirituals as a starting point for improvisation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOON: That's bassist Charles Mingus with his classic group in 1959. His approach to gospel has inspired generations of jazz musicians, including Don Byron, the talented woodwind player heard here on clarinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOON: Byron and his group chase gospel's exuberant side, those toe-tapping, jubilee-style rave-ups. Many of their arrangements open with a vocal chorus followed by solo turns that travel far from what's printed in the hymn book.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOON: The solos on Byron's new work are certainly high spirited, almost Saturday night boisterous. Sometimes, though, we turn to gospel for calm reflection, and this is where the new album from Hank Jones and Charlie Haden shines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME SUNDAY")

MOON: "Come Sunday" is the second gospel collaboration between Jones and Haden. It was recorded a few months before Jones died and it's transfixingly effortless music, a conversation between masters, built around these solid reassuring melodies they've heard and likely played for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME SUNDAY")

MOON: Sometimes, jazz improvisation has a muscle flexing, look-what-I-can-do aspect. Not this music. Jones and Haden are long past the point of trying to impress anybody. As they shut out the chatter of the modern world, the two go searching for a higher truth, a moment's peace. In these sturdy old songs of faith, they find it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: The latest album from Hank Jones and Charlie Haden is called "Come Sunday" and the new album from Don Byron is called "Love, Peace and Soul." Our reviewer is Tom Moon and you can hear more examples of gospel-inspired jazz at NPRMusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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