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Haden (left) and Jones/Emarcy Records

Gospel surprises

Music | Jazz performers offer new takes on Christian standards

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

"The wind," said Jesus, referring to the Holy Spirit, "bloweth where it listeth," and jazz fans need look no further for evidence than Come Sunday (EmArcy), the recently released instrumental album of gospel standards by the bassist Charlie Haden and the late pianist Hank Jones.

Recorded shortly before Jones' death in 2010, Come Sunday is a sequel to the duo's 1995 collaboration, Steal Away. And, like that collection of "spirituals, hymns, and folk songs," Come Sunday comprises melodies familiar to anyone brought up in the "old-time religion" specifically celebrated in one of the album's 14 tracks.

That Jones had an affinity for these songs is no surprise. The son of a Baptist deacon, he could've probably played "Bringing in the Sheaves," "Sweet Hour of Prayer," "Blessed Assurance," and "The Old Rugged Cross" in his sleep. But he certainly wouldn't have played them as simply and eloquently as he did while he was awake in the studio and no doubt aware that at 91 his end was drawing nigh.

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Haden's attachment to the music is tougher to figure out. A political leftist whose 2005 album with the Liberation Music Orchestra, Not in Our Name, was a direct response to the policies of George W. Bush (and whose 1969 album, Liberation Music Orchestra, was a direct response to the Vietnam War), he seems an unlikely participant in a project most likely to appeal to devout members of red-state churches. But he plays with simplicity and eloquence as well, thus giving credence to the theory that his inclusion of "Amazing Grace" on Not in Our Name may not have been ironic after all.

Definitely not ironic is Love, Peace, and Soul (Savoy Jazz) by the jazz clarinetist Don Byron and his New Gospel Quintet. Like Haden and Jones, Byron knows his church music. Unlike Haden and Jones, he prefers it served up hot, twisted into funky new shapes (sing along to his 10-minute arrangement of "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" at your own risk), and with lyrics: Only on the disc-ending "When I've Done My Best" does the vocalist D.K. Dyson take a well-deserved breather.

Eight of the 12 tracks are re-workings of Thomas Dorsey compositions long beloved of black-gospel devotees, and another is the Mahalia Jackson staple "Didn't It Rain." So it would be easy to dismiss Love, Peace, and Soul as simply the latest of Byron's "genre exercises." (He has also recorded tributes to the klezmer music of Mickey Katz, the R&B music of Junior Walker, and the genre-defying music of Raymond Scott.)

It would be easy, that is, if it weren't for "Himmm," a tender Byron-Dyson original reminding listeners who find themselves in their "darkest hours" that "joy comes in the morning." "Hold me tight 'til then," Dyson sings while Byron's clarinet echoes her request. It's hard to imagine such a composition coming from someone who hadn't first lived it as a prayer.

The coverage following the death in March of the banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs drew attention to another often-overlooked but nonetheless rich source of gospel song: the music Scruggs performed with Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys in the early years of their career.

Flatt and Scruggs tend to be remembered for revolutionizing the way bluegrass was played. But as the many compilations of their Mercury Records recordings from 1948 to 1951 attest, gospel themes figured largely in the words they sang and wrote-as those drawn in by "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" will eventually discover, possibly to their everlasting delight.


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