Guitars snarl and flash like bolts of lightning, and bass rumbles like the roll of distant thunder as Jason Walker asks the Lord, in the spiritual "I Told Jesus," if He would change his name.
Walker knows the price of discipleship, but the swirling, glowering instruments make it no easier to decide. The confrontation has an elongated, surreal quality, as if taking place on a Salvador Dali landscape. Walker’s final declaration, however, silences the musical voices.
Jason Walker is the son of Rev. Charles Walker of Philadelphia and kin to Mahalia Jackson. His self-released CD Just Like You mixes secular and religious music together to produce what he calls “folk-soul.”
Not just any group, especially an emerging ensemble, can secure as major a gospel icon as Inez Andrews for its debut project.
But Just Friends is not just any group. First, keyboardist extraordinare Richard Gibbs, Inez' son, is a member. Second, the Chicago-based gospel group includes Gus and Chuck Lacy, Janice Gilmore, and a host of other talented singers, along with bass work from Donald Alford, Jr. and a cameo appearance by Faith Howard.
The group’s aptly-titled debut album Fulfillment is superbly produced by Gus and Chuck Lacy. They maintain the perfect balance between the singers and musicians. Just Friends’ harmonies are strong, firm and rich, whether the group is engaged in P&W, such as on the brisk opening track, “I Will Praise and Worship You;” the soulful and smooth “Jehovah Jireh,” featuring Gus Lacy’s silky vocals; or the traditional-drenched cover of Thomas Whitfield’s paean to conversion and discipleship, “That’s When He Saved My Soul.”
Andrews contributes her no-nonsense delivery to “Living in a Place.” She describes Heaven as “God’s place where there is no sin.” She sings with a winsomeness that brings to mind Cassietta George’s depiction of the other shore on “Walk Around Heaven All Day.” Meanwhile, Faith Howard transforms “I Wait” from a conventional P&W song to an electrifying performance.
“Set This Place on Fire,” the group’s single and rallying cry, is a song with a CCM melody surrounded by snarling guitars. Regardless of the difference in musical style, the group’s well-tuned harmonies are ever-present.
The influence of the Hawkins Family comes through in Just Friends' even-handed and contemporary sound that favors tonality over theatricality. No surprise, then, that the ensemble was chosen to participate in this year's Edwin & Walter Hawkins Music & Arts Love Fellowship Conference. They also backed the Caravans for Albertina Walker's funeral service. Four of Five Stars
Picks: “I Will Praise and Worship You,” “That’s When He Saved My Soul,” “Living in a Place.”
The album notes to Serve the Lord proclaim that Leanne Faine “is bringing church back to church music.”
That she does.
On her third solo release, Faine – famed soloist for the Thompson Community Singers and the voice of the choir's popular “The Holy Ghost," – teams with her ensemble Favor to shake the rafters and shout down the glory.
What’s most striking is that the album is unabashedly traditional and singularly-focused. Bucking the trend of offering several varieties of gospel music on one CD, like a Whitman sampler of styles, Serve the Lord starts traditional and stays traditional.
The CD even offers more than the usual portion of up-tempo church wreckers. These include the incendiary title track and current single, the backbeat driven “Awesome God,” and the tambourine-shaking “He’ll Make it Alright.” The latter is a Thompson Community Singers classic from the mid-80s, written by Percy Bady and sung by the late Ethel Holloway. Naturally, Faine dedicates her version to Holloway and the Tommies.
On “Lord, Give Me What I Need,” Faine slows the tempo to sing churchy and flatfooted, with fire in her bones. When album producer Nathan Young sidles up to the B3 to accompany Faine on “O Sweet Wonder,” the Leslie speaker chortles, gargles, and disgorges its thick, gooey chords until the "Yes Lord" chant arises...eerily, too, as if the organ itself was caught up in the spirit.
The closest Serve the Lord comes to contemporary gospel is the bonus track, “Can I Get a Witness,” an ensemble outing with a funky beat recorded live at Faine's home church, Sweet Holy Spirit, where Bishop Larry D. Trotter is Pastor.
Legendary powerhouse gospel singers Albertina Walker and Ethel Holloway may be gone but their technique and passion live on in the ministries of Chicago artists such as Leanne Faine.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Serve the Lord,” “He’ll Make It Alright,” “O Sweet Wonder.”
Unashamed of the gospel. Unashamed of his Christian lifestyle. Unashamed of a growing body of work that includes appearances on chart-topping Christian hip hop albums and a Stellar nomination, his second, for his own full-length release, Lions and Liars.
Sho told TBGB via telephone last week that even as a child, he was fascinated by the world of entertainment. "I wanted to be a talk show host,” he said. “I would interview invisible people!”
Born Amisho Lewis, Sho Baraka spent the first years of his life in Canada, where his father was working at the time. The family returned to the States when Sho was four, settling in Southern California.
In high school, Sho joined a hip hop group. “One of my buddies decided to form a group out of guys on our campus who had certain talents. His father worked with some pretty well known labels and artists, so we had the opportunity to travel with popular artists and rub shoulders with individuals who a lot of people would call important. We got to see the good and the bad of the music business.”
After the group disbanded, Sho took his father's advice and enrolled in college. It was during his sophomore year that he adopted a Christian lifestyle.
“Around 1999 or 2000, I went to a conference called Impact. I was not a Christian at the time, but my brother, who was a Christian and led a college Bible study, encouraged me to go to the conference because he knew it would do something for me.
"While I was there, I heard this man preach about the passion of the Christ, how Christ was crucified for my sins and that I was responsible for putting him on the cross. I’d heard stories before, I’d been to church before, but that was the first time the message of Christ became so real that I felt I needed to do something about it. It was at that moment that I made a conscious effort to live my life for all things above. I changed my life, I changed the people that I lived with, and the circle of friends that I allowed to influence me.”
In the process, Sho made two new and, ultimately, life-changing acquaintances: Christian artists Lecrae and Tedashii.
“I had been attending college in Alabama, but I could no longer afford it. My brother was leading a college Bible study at the University of North Texas and so I transferred there. Lecrae had been at the University of North Texas for a while, but he moved away for a year. He returned while I was there, and a year later, Tedashii came to the university. At one point we were all roommates, living in an apartment in Denton, Texas, using our gifts to glorify the Lord.
“As we were hanging out on campus, being kind of loud and rambunctious for our faith, we felt the need to make our presence known. At one point in our lives, we had promoted a lifestyle of wickedness, but now that we’d changed, we thought, why don’t we promote the lifestyle that we now love? Romans 1:16 was one of the scriptures that encouraged us. So a couple of the guys started walking around campus with shirts that read, '116: Unashamed of the Gospel.' After awhile we became a clique, just organically, a group of guys walking around campus, sharing our faith and talking about the Lord."
Today, former roommates Lecrae, Tedashii and Sho Baraka continue to share their faith as successful Christian hip hop artists signed to Reach Records.
“We love to promote and communicate the idea of community,” Sho said. “It’s what we’re adamant about at Reach Records: being part of one another’s projects and encouraging one another to be great at what God has gifted us in. So you’ll find us ministering on each other’s albums, you’ll find us working as a team on albums. Working together is a Biblical necessity, but no matter what business or field you are in, community and teamwork is important, having people around that make you better at what you do.”
Sho recalls Thirteen Letters (Reach, 2007) as “one of the most difficult, but also the most rewarding, projects I’ve ever worked on. Thirteen Letters was a compilation of the thirteen epistles that Paul wrote. Each artist took one or two letters and transcribed them into rap form, put a beat to them, and did a survey of what the book means. It was difficult because, you know, these were the words of God that I was rapping, that I was communicating, not necessarily just thoughts that I came up with."
This year, Sho was a guest artist on DJ Official's Entermission and Trip Lee's Between Two Worlds, the latter topping both the Billboard Gospel and Christian Album charts. Entermission, Between Two Worlds and Sho's sophomore release, Lions and Liars, are three of the four nominees for a 2011 Stellar Award as Best Rap/Hip Hop CD of the Year.
“The primary message of Lions and Liars,” Sho explained, “is that everyone who is a child of the King has a responsibility to make Him famous. People struggle to feel significant if they’re not pastors, musicians, evangelists or vocational ministers. You don’t have to be a pastor or a musician. If you’re a teacher, if you’re a blogger, if you’re a radio host, no matter what you do in life, you have a responsibility to account for your life. What will you do with this life? Will you make Him famous or will you waste it?”
Have the Billboard chart successes and Stellar nominations changed the way people view Christian rap and hip hop? Sho is cautiously optimistic.
“The hip hop genre, especially in Christian music, is still looked at as an immature music,” he stated. “It’s looked at kind of sideways, you still have to enter in the back door sometimes. So if anything, the [Stellar] nominations will help people realize that this is a serious genre, this is a serious form of music. It’s not just for kids, not just for the youth, but also for adults who enjoy hip hop music. This is a viable means by which God can communicate truth. If those who made the nominations, those who see the nominations, and those who vote recognize this, then it’s a win for all involved. But if the movement continues to be ignored, then it’s all been done in vein."
He added, “It’s hard to not notice what’s happening. I think every generation has had an artist who people tried to ignore, but after a while the movement became so organic or grassroots that they had to take notice. Even in mainstream music, people thought hip hop would fade away, but now it’s one of the leading forms of music. It will serve the gatekeepers of Christian music well to recognize that hip hop is a music that everybody enjoys, and that there are people out there selling records. You’ve got Lecrae who is number one on Billboard. It’s almost impossible to ignore, but if they do, they will be left behind, and that’s unfortunate.”
Sho is currently working on another Reach Records group project with Lecrae, Tedashii, Trip Lee and a newly-signed artist, KB. “I’m also an up and coming actor, director and writer,” he said. “I have a film coming out February 25 called The Grace Card, and another film called October Baby that will be released in 2012."
How does he manage it all?
“I'm just a creative mind," he said. "I never stop creating. I can be in the shower or I can be driving down the street listening to some music and something pops into my head. I make sure my phone is handy, or a pad, so I can jot it down or record it. Maybe I’ll use [the idea] a day from now or maybe a year from now. That’s how I operate. However inspiration comes, it just comes. I just make sure to capture the moment.”
In the December 24, 2010 issue of the Wall Street Journal, reviewer Terry Teachout proclaimed There Breathes a Hope to be “the most important historical reissue of 2010.”
I couldn’t agree more.
There Breathes a Hope combines jubilee singing, rare photography, expert commentary and album design to produce what is more than a compilation: the two-CD set is a history lesson for the ages.
The package from Grammy-winning Archeophone Records opens with the Fisk University Jubilee Quartette’s historic first sessions for the Victor Record Company in 1909 and 1911. It concludes with the 1915-16 Columbia recordings and one of two known discs produced for the Richmond, Indiana-based Starr label in 1916.
While all of the recordings are superb, the real treats are smack-dab in the middle: nine cylinders from the quartet’s December 1911 session for the Edison Phonograph Company. These rare Edison four-minute cylinders have not been reissued until now. Seven were discovered in pristine condition by Ken Flaherty, Jr., a collector and the album's co-producer, at a flea market ten years ago.
Unlike the Victor and Columbia recordings, the Edison cylinders capture the vibrant quartet when it was graced with the soon-to-be concert singer Roland Hayes as second tenor. Listening to the crystal-clear high notes of Hayes and John Work II on selections such as “All Over This World” and “My Soul is a Witness” is magical. The superior audio quality of Edison product bestows a brightness to the performances that pre-electric Victor and Columbia could not capture, although Columbia came closest. In any event, the chance to hear these nine cylinders are alone worth the purchase price.
Equally inspiring is hearing the quartet perform beyond the three-minute limitation of the ten-inch phonograph record. For example, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” clocks in at 4:34. This is as close to hearing the quartet performing the arrangements in concert as we in the twenty-first century are likely to experience.
The famed Fisk Jubilee Singers were too large an ensemble to capture via acoustic recording horns, so four gentlemen were assembled as the Fisk University Jubilee Quartette to make recordings. Thanks to Work’s direction, the group was known for its tight a cappella harmonies, tenor leads, and vibrant rhythms on selections such “The Old Ark,” “Golden Slippers,” “Brethren, Rise Shine,” "Peter on the Sea," and “I Know the Lord Laid His Hands on Me.” On "The Ole Ark," from the Edison session, one of the members punctuates the energetic singing with quick wordless exhortations, anticipating the enthusiastic interjections common to gospel music.
Not all of the 43 selections on There Breathes a Hope are spirituals, or even sung. Like most quartets of the day, the group performed secular as well as sacred pieces. Included here is the group rendering Foster’s “Old Black Joe” in solemn tempo. Four selections feature Rev. James A. Myers reciting Paul Laurence Dunbar poems, including "When Malindy Sings” and “In the Morning.”
Snippets of a 1983 interview researcher and author Doug Seroff conducted with Jerome I. Wright, one of the last surviving members of the Fisk group to work under John Work II, provide interesting insights into the singers’ focused dedication to their craft.
The handsomely illustrated album includes than 100 pages of rich, discographical information; transcriptions; and Seroff’s fascinating and detailed essay on the Fisk group and its indefatigable organizer, John Work II. Work helped to revive the spirituals tradition at Fisk and went on to contribute significantly to their preservation as a song collector and arranger. Tim Brooks wrote the essay's prologue; his collaboration with Archeophone’s Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey on Lost Sounds, an audio companion to his major work on early African American recording artists, earned the team its first two Grammy Awards in 2006. Not surprisingly, the booklet accompanying There Breathes a Hope has been nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Album Notes” category.
There Breathes a Hope provides musicologist and enthusiast alike a front row seat to trained vocal harmony as it was performed a century ago, when, as Wright explained proudly, “we made it sound like a pipe organ.”
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “All Over This World,” “My Soul is a Witness,” "Peter on the Sea."
He is founder and senior pastor of Northview Christian Church, and teaches at its two locations: Dothan and Montgomery, Alabama. In addition, he is a longtime musician and shares his preaching and musical talents on radio and television.
If that’s not enough to keep him busy, in late October, Ramsey released his debut CD, Charge it to My Heart, for N-Coded Music.
Charge It to My Heart is an hour of pleasant, relaxing smooth jazz performed by a combo of studio-polished musicians. Ramsey is the keyboardist and drum programmer. Naturally, keys lead the songs, though sax and guitar also play significant roles in the presentation. All but four of the thirteen tracks are instrumentals.
The CD is easy on the ears, in a Kirk Whalum sort of way, and reminiscent of a sunny, spring day. I tend to gravitate towards the four songs with lyrics because I cannot seem to wrap my head around the concept of inspirational contemporary jazz without words. It is difficult for me to tease what is inspirational from what is not when no lyrics are involved. One can argue that all contemporary jazz music, if performed well – and it is here – is inspirational because it helps people pray, meditate, dream, or generally be creative. I tend to agree, but to make it truly "gospel" or "inspirational" jazz, show me the lyrics!
“Centerpiece” is the album’s single. It features Kelley O’Neal’s wailing sax and gritty guitar work, including a fiery guitar solo by Eric Essix. For me, “You Are My Life” is the album’s highlight because the lyrics, harmonized delicately by background vocalists, are a testimony about the delights of modern day discipleship. The song structure, repeated lines and blues-inflected chord changes give the performance a gospel feel.
If you missed Moses Tyson, Jr.’s Music the first time around, you haven’t missed it completely.
The reigning Dean of the Hammond B3 has just re-mastered and re-released the eleven-year-old project, co-produced by Edwin Hawkins and Niko Lyras, along with a second disc of organ instrumentals.
Tyson plays Laurens Hammond's invention with the mind of Jimmy Smith and the heart of Billy Preston. Under his direction, the B3 gets in touch with emotions it never knew it had. One moment it is cascading a waterfall of notes or shooting at invisible space invaders, and the next, it’s a caldron boiling over or a saint squalling in the throes of Holy Ghost possession. The B3’s infinite expressions have made it a perfect accompaniment to gospel music since the late 1930s, and Tyson pulls on all of them.
Music Re-Mastered (disc one) finds Tyson amidst an assembly of talented singers, including Edwin Hawkins and Lynette Hawkins-Stephens. Together, they deliver traditional-style arrangements of songs such as “Walk in the Light” and the uptempo "You Got to Move." Rev. Richard “Mr. Clean” White’s “House Call” is a clever depiction of Jesus as a Biblical soul doctor making house visits (“no appointment necessary”).
Tyson’s bluesy cover of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” includes psychedelic flourishes that could have come from the organist’s cousin, Sly Stone. A version of the saccharine “One Day at a Time” is one of the best I’ve heard, next to former Lux Singer Bertha Melson’s a cappella renditions straight outta the pew during Chicago programs.
Where roughly half of the tracks on Music Re-Mastered are funky and soulful organ instrumentals, Sacred Organ Music (disc two) is given over entirely to introspective organ expositions of church classics such as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Old Ship of Zion." Here, Tyson's employment of dynamic shifts on sustained vibrato demonstrates a measure of allegiance to Rev. Maceo Woods.
In summary, Music Re-Mastered gives listeners a chance to re-explore an album that is gospel with a capital G. Sacred Organ Music is icing on the cake.
Keyboardists take note: in January 2011, Tyson will be demonstrating the new Hammond Mini B in various cities across the country.
(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Gospel recording artist Kevin LeVar married his longtime manager Shondale Bostick, of God Glorified Music, Inc., on Friday, December 17th.
The wedding ceremony, held at The Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, was co-officiated by the fathers of the bride and the groom, both of whom are pastors.
The evening was billed as a “Wedding Night of Worship,” complete with performances by fellow gospel artists Brian Courtney Wilson, Lowell Pye and Chante Moore. LeVar, who wrote a special song for his bride’s walk down the aisle, performed as well.
“We wanted our wedding to be a shared event where all could come and celebrate what God has done in our lives,” says LeVar. “We also desired for people to be able to experience the power of true love in the presence of God and perhaps be encouraged by it, be healed by it and be strengthened by it.”
Habakkuk Music and Universal Music Christian Group released LeVar’s latest album, Let’s Come Together (Deluxe Edition), in October, featuring four new songs plus a bonus DVD filled with extra content.
The powerful message behind his latest single "A Heart That Forgives," which shot to #1 on Gospel Music Channel, has started a movement to inspire one million acts of forgiveness. The Forgive & Live Campaign kicks off in 2011 with the goal of restoring families, repairing friendships, strengthening communities and empowering people through the simple act of forgiveness.
St. Louis’ Erica Reed - singer and restauranteur - contributes to the Yuletide music catalog with “It’s Christmas Time,” a relaxed contemporary piece reiterating the reason for celebrating the season. It’s delivered in Reed’s characteristic finger-popping style with multi-tracked voices chiming in antiphonal assent.
Folks in the St. Louis area will be able to catch Reed, nominee for Rhythm of Gospel Awards, performing “It’s Christmas Time” on television: News KPRL 11 Wednesday, December 22nd at 4 p.m.
Brooklyn-based B Cain & ROCK features the lead vocals of Bianca Cain, a twenty-one-year-old singer/songwriter who honed her skills as part of the group Jez’Reel. She formed ROCK earlier this year out of a group of musicians whose ministerial vision matched her own.
“Everything I Am” is the group’s debut single. It combines praise and worship, CCM, rock, and Cain’s gospel vocals, which have a slight touch of reggae in their articulation. The simple, effective melody floats an equally uncomplicated message of the thrill of new life through conversion.
You can download a free copy of the single on ReverbNation from now through January 1, 2011.
If you like hip hop holiday fare, J Prophet’s “Merry Christmas to You” is for you.
In between strains of Christmas carols, the Ghostwriter instructs everyone to reflect, “right before you go back to the food and get seconds,” that we are privileged to enjoy this season because of the little baby who grew up to be a savior.
At the conclusion of the two-part, nine-minute-plus “What is Christmas,” James “Kelly Fox!” Davis turns to the audience. “That’s just the first song, I told you we’re gonna have fun tonight!”
That is no hyperbole. Those participating in Davis’ debut CD, The Best Gift, seemed to have loads of fun making the live recording.
The big, round voices of A Bunch of Friends (who literally are a bunch of Davis' friends), along with the bold chords and bass-supported flourishes of the musicians define today’s contemporary gospel sound. The strong musicianship is no doubt the result of Davis’ music education, his background in jazz studies, and the time he spent picking up on gospel music from the likes of William Becton.
The Best Gift is choir-centric, with several vocalists serving as lead. The songs are newly composed, mostly by Davis, and while the lyrics and melodies refer to the season, they are not necessarily seasonal: that is, most are suitable for year-round enjoyment. One exception is the Christmas ballad “He Was Born.” It concludes with a lovely rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which might sound a bit out of place in July. On the other hand “An Hour,” with its reference to the Garden of Gethsemane story, is suitable for Easter.
Other strong choir pieces on the CD include the single “Celebrate” and the salsa-flavored title track, during which ABF reminds the listeners of the album's overarching theme: that the best gift comes from Jesus.
The sequence of “Three Kings’ Gifts,” “Silver and Go!-ld” and the reprise match the opening track for the most spirited moments. During “Silver and Go!-ld,” ABF sings that they “don’t need no presents…just give me Jesus, He’s all I need.” Its “Go Tell it on the Mountain” postlude builds the spirit to a fever pitch and capitulates into a praise break.
The Best Gift is well produced, finely paced and a fine debut for James "Kelly Fox! Davis and A Bunch of Friends.
Roebuck "Pops" Staples, patriarch of the Staple Singers whose down-home singing style and reverb guitar became the family group's trademark, was honored last week with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
The marker was placed on Summit Street near the courthouse in Staples' hometown of Winona, Mississippi. Authorities noted that it made sense to place the tribute where it would be seen than where Staples was actually born, on a farm in a remote wooded area near Winona.
If you don’t know Kristin Smith – although most in gospel music’s inner circle do – you will know her by her musical roots.
Her aunt was Ruth Jones, an Alabama migrant who directed a church choir, accompanied an early iteration of the Sallie Martin Singers, but was best known as “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington. Back in the day, the family also ran a popular music store on Chicago’s west side. Smith’s mother, Clarissa, is a gospel singer, releasing God Has Got Your Back, in 2006. Her father, the late Eugene Smith, Sr. (not to be confused with the Roberta Martin Singers member), owned HeavenSent Records.
On Expecting, Smith leads with her strengths, delivering the first few songs in an energetic urban R&B gospel style with just the right touch of techno. “Give Him Your All” and “I’m Expecting,” both produced and arranged by the great Percy Bady, are the highpoints in this section. The title of the latter track initially produced a few surprised looks when it was announced at the Gospel Announcers Guild convention last July, but when Smith sings that she is expecting, it’s not a baby but a “supernatural move” in her life.
Bady is not the only gospel talent Smith called upon for assistance. Songs by artists Maurice Griffin (“Faith”) and Donald “Buster” Woods (“UnEnding Love”) also populate the project. Damita Cox and Mona Perkins are among the various background singers.
Although the urban gospel sound is Smith’s sweet spot, she uses the CD to explore other gospel styles, too, notably contemporary, traditional and even power-rock laced with fuzz-guitar on the appropriately titled “Least Expect It.” The traditional moments come at the conclusion. The two-part “Victory in the Praise” is a churchy Chicago-style pewburner written by William Smith Jr. and Kenneth Williams.
Auntie Ruth would be proud.
Four of Five Stars
Picks: “Give Him Your All,” “Victory in the Praise.”
To say Jasmine Burch has grown up with gospel music would be an understatement.
She was exposed to it, quite literally, before she was born. While some mothers play Mozart to their gestating babies, Jasmine’s mother picked the way funkier Tommies’ If I Be Lifted LP. I think Burch is all the better for her mother's choice.
Surrounded thus by music, the Raleigh, NC native has been singing, and singing gospel, since she was three. She released her debut CD, Declaration, on Joe Jones’ M.Y.R.O.H. imprint, and the result is a appealing blend of pop, gospel and amped-up urban R&B. The album employs gospelized power pop to deliver its inspirational messages, which seem especially directed toward young and young-ish listeners.
The songs, written or co-written by Joanna Jones, have a Top 40 docility and are well-suited to Burch’s pleasurable voice. In its opening seconds, the album’s single, “Whatcha Gon Do?” leaps at the listener, then relates vignettes of young people whose circumstances caused them to make decisions not in their best interest. Burch reminds the protagonists (and listeners, de facto) that the solution is only a prayer away. “Hold On” is a variation of this theme, encouraging the disenchanted to keep the faith and maintain their vision, whatever it may be. On the title track, Burch suggests that she herself made some course corrections.
Other songs portray Jesus as a friend (“Best Friend”) and an object of agape (“Love Me for Me,” “Lover of My Soul”). With its catchy rhythm and uncomplicated message, “Best Friend” could be on the pop charts, though to be fair, it is actually more compelling and memorable than many of the current songs on said chart.
Declaration is a strong debut for this twenty-two year-old Raleigh, NC native, the kind of project that even those who don’t like gospel can cozy up to.
James Fortune exclaims “Make some noise” often on his new project, I Believe: Live.
He certatinly doesn’t have to ask that of his vocalists. Possessing the energy of ten Pentecostal choirs, FIYA may well be one of the loudest ensembles in gospel today.
Fortune’s dramatic, gut-wrenched interjections and antiphonal exhortations – think John P. Kee meets Rev. C.L. Franklin – are the powder to FIYA’s match. Add funky musicians and the combination is an explosion of music and ministry.
That is the essence of I Believe: Live – an explosion of music and ministry, a Pentecostal service set at maximum volume.
Recorded earlier this year in Fortune’s hometown of Houston, the project opens with the popular title track. A breathless sob caught in his throat, Fortune encourages Shawn McLemore and Zacardi Cortez to encourage those at wits’ end to maintain hope because their blessing is “already done.” The single has swept gospel enthusiasts off their feet, holding fast on Billboard’s Hot Gospel Songs chart for 21 weeks, as of this writing, and in the number one position for much of that time.
I Believe: Live is a bit of a James Fortune best-of album because in addition to the title track, it includes live performances of some of the artist’s other hits, such as “I Wouldn’t Know You” (featuring the sassy Nakitta Fox), “Encore,” and Andrae Crouch’s classic “The Blood.” As on the single, Cortez turns “The Blood” into a shout fest, but here it also develops into a full-out praise break.
In addition to Fox, top gospel talents who assist on the live project are Kierra Sheard, Lowell Pye, Josiah Martin and William Murphy.
A nice surprise on the CD is “Bounce Back,” a bracingly rhythmic ensemble piece that in its exposition of survivorship reinforces the project’s overarching “don’t stop believing” theme. Similarly, “Battle is Over” focuses on the inevitable victory over trouble.
I Believe: Live is long on punchy arrangements, funky tempos, dynamic singing and diaphragm-ripping preaching. The praise experience trumps the melodies, which when brought to the fore during a segment of praise and worship songs, are familiar and uncomplicated.
Fortune recently appeared on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” in Dallas to perform songs from the CD/DVD, which was released on December 7.
J Prophet shatters all stereotypes of the typical hip hop artist, secular or sacred.
He doesn’t rap about growing up on mean streets or even about being saved from a life of sin, shambles and shame. Quite the opposite: the rapper earned an undergraduate degree from Yale University in the spring and remains in New Haven to complete a masters program at Yale Divinity School.
This past September, the Ghostwriter took time out from schoolwork to release his latest mixtape, Getting My Shape Up, Vol. 1. The new collection contains fourteen new tracks and three remixed and remastered selections from Ghostwriter Vol. 3: Hope in the Valley.
Make no mistake: Yale resume and membership in Kappa Alpha Psi notwithstanding, J Prophet has sufficient life experience to deliver lyrics about the pain and challenges associated with living the straight-and-narrow Christian life, facing haters and disbelievers, and scuffling with Satan. He has the acumen to grapple articulately with social issues and offers love, hope and faith as solutions to life’s myriad complications. The tracks are set to conventional beats and minimal atmosphere so the lyrics can be heard clearly.
“Music is my medicine,” J Prophet spits on “Over the Land,” and arguably so is cathartic rapping, as he provides what sounds like an autobiographical account on “Exhibit A (Speak to Me)” and “I Ain’t Scared,” the latter depicting a near fatal car accident. “BMF Freestyle” highlights heroes of the past, including Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, who demonstrated J Prophet's mantra of “peace and power.”
“Sky is the Limit,” featuring Antoine, is the mixtape’s shining moment. It is part spoken word poetry, part rap and all inspiration. Speaking of guest vocalists, the female vocalist on “Thank You (Class of 2010)” sounds for all the world like Lauryn Hill.
A third generation Winans, Mike is a popular producer and songwriter for gospel, R&B, and pop artists. He just released his debut solo album, A Mike Winans Christmas: Timeless Noel, and shared with TBGB his plans for a full-length album scheduled for early 2011.
Mike Winans first entered the public consciousness as a member of Winans Phase II. The group’s founding, he explained, was entirely serendipitous.
“Our fathers, the Winans brothers, were asked to do a station identification for WDIV, the NBC affiliate in Detroit. They asked us, their sons, if we wanted to be part of it and we said yes. Well, the ID hit it big in the city and we became local celebrities!
“At the time, my uncle Carvin was entertaining a position with Myrrh Records. Once he got there, he discovered that the label had heard about the ID and wanted to find us. So we didn’t rehearse, or even decide to form a group, until Myrrh said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“God really blessed. Winans Phase II received a Grammy nomination and was number one on the Billboard gospel charts.”
Mike’s next move was to work for Bad Boy Records, a label founded in 1993 by Sean “Diddy” Combs.
“My cousin Mario was already signed to Puff as a songwriter and a producer," Mike related. "I had recorded a demo CD, and I hadn’t sent it to Bad Boy, but someone was playing it inside of the Bad Boy studios. Puff heard it and asked one of his representatives to give me a call. Puff said, ‘Look, Mike, I like your work, but I’m not going to sign you right now. I want you to go through a trial period where you’ll work with New Edition’ – they had just signed New Edition. ‘If that goes well, I’ll sign you to a publishing deal.’
“Apparently that went pretty well, because the sky’s been the limit since then. I have worked with basically every Bad Boy artist since 2003, and am most proud of the songs I’ve written for Chris Brown.”
Why a Christmas project as his first solo outing?
“Christmas is a season when people are in their most loving spirit,” Mike reflected. “I wanted to contribute to that spirit. I also want to be the type of songwriter and producer who makes timeless music, hence the title of the project, 'Timeless Noel.' With so many Christmas songs that we sing, I thought it would be cool if I could write songs that people will sing decades down the road."
The first single is “Home for Christmas.” Mike said the inspiration for the song came "from years of being on the road during the holidays and wanting to be home for Christmas. The song also reminds me of a time when I was recording in Miami during the holidays. I’m from Detroit, and in Detroit, Christmas is a white Christmas, and it’s cold outside! In Miami, it was burning hot. It didn’t feel like Christmas at all!”
In 2011, Mike plans to release a full-length CD. “It’s going to be a beautiful thing, an album of substance,” he said.
“Sometimes there’s a gap between the church and gospel music and the ‘secular world.’ I want to bridge that gap. Working in pop music as a songwriter, I’ve run across many people who are – I don’t want to say damaged – but they definitely have been affected by the style of music they do. Some of them feel ostracized from the church. If you really talk to these artists, you’d be surprised how many love God and have a great relationship with Him, but they feel that because they do secular music, they are not going to be received by the church. This project will touch both worlds and, hopefully, bridge a gap so nobody feels ostracized.”
Mike acknowledged that the Winans Family is recognized historically for musical innovation, bridging the gap between sacred and secular, but he added, “I feel like it’s my responsibility to bridge that gap even further.
“For example, there’s going to be a song on the upcoming release called 'Progress Report.' The song simply asks if I was given a progress report that graded my life up to this point, what would I receive? That’s something anybody can ask. All of us have ups and downs, and all of us have done things we are proud of and not proud of. At the end of the day, as long as we ask forgiveness of our sins, God will be faithful and forgive us."
Look for the new album to be released at the end of February or early March, possibly in time for Mike's birthday, March 2.
"The project will deal with practical situations," Mike concluded. "We’re going to hit the issues head on. You will know exactly what I’m talking about. There are certain things I want to say, to awaken some issues that need addressing.”
Yes, I know it is no longer 2006, and so why have I waited four years to review Juanita Bynum’s Christmas CD? I heard it for the first time a few days ago, honest, so it’s new to me.
Christmas at Home with Juanita Bynum contains six classic Yule songs, two modern selections and a new composition, “It’s Christmas Time,” co-written by Bynum and album producer Robert W. “JoJo” Hill. The latter features vocalist Myron Williams, Stellar Award-nominated producer and CEO of Flow Records, and one of two guest artists who adorn the project (the other is Micah Stampley’s young son, Micah II, who sings on “I Stand In Awe of You”).
The traditional songs are the most noteworthy. The musicians maintain a small jazz combo feel, easy-going and comfortable, especially on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which benefits from a lovely piano solo by either Lovell Bradford or Natalie Ragins (the liner notes aren’t specific as to who did the honors). Strings wrap festively like garland around many of the tracks.
Bynum sticks to the main melody of the carols, but not without interjecting touches of her trademark evangelistic improvisation whenever the spirit led. She even trails off into tongues during the conclusion of “O Holy Night,” which might be the first time this hymn has been garnished with glossolalia, at least on record.
“Oh Come All Ye Faithful” is the high point of the album. It climaxes with the font of passionate emotion that listeners have come to anticipate from Prophetess Bynum, and what they love about her singing.
Christmas at Home with Juanita Bynum will please longtime Bynum fans as well as those who like their Christmas music simple and to the point.
Four of Five Stars
Picks: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
The Rance Allen Group The Live Experience II
Tyscot Records (release date: January 25, 2011) http://www.tyscot.com/
When the Hawkins Family opened the door to contemporary sounds in gospel music, Rance Allen and his brothers walked through with their incendiary brand of funk and psychedelic arrangements.
The group endured its share of quizzical looks from church folk at the time, but once its sacred style caught on, the Rance Allen Group produced one hit record after another. They helped pave the way for today’s inventive urban gospel artists.
The Rance Allen Group gathered at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit last July to celebrate its fortieth year in the music business. Tyscot Records captured the evening’s highlights for posterity on CD and DVD as The Live Experience II, a follow-up to 2004's concert CD/DVD, The Live Experience.
Top talents lending their voices to the anniversary occasion were Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Called II Worship and Paul Porter. After the first few minutes of listening to The Live Experience II, one is struck by how the Rance Allen Group sounds as bold, searing and gritty as it did on its first single, waxed for the Reflect label in 1969.
With the exception of two medleys of past hits, the selections featured on The Live Experience II are new, many co-written with the Rance Allen Group’s music director and album producer, Chris Byrd. Outstanding moments include the nine-plus minute version of the current single, “You That I Trust.” You owe it to yourself to hear the album version, which climaxes with Rance Allen and Paul Porter shaking the church rafters with shouts that would impress Archie Brownlee and Bob Washington.
“Love Train” is not the Gamble-Huff locomotive but rather a Chris Byrd and Rance Allen composition. The lyric message is similar to the more famous Love Train but with a completely different melody and patches of sanctified acceleration.
On the slow burning “Angel,” Steve Allen relates his personal brush with angelic intervention. Not wanting to be a spoiler, all I will say is it has to do with a familiar voice over the car radio.
The Live Experience II captures the relentless exuberance of the Rance Allen Group in concert. As Rance sings, “let the music get down in your soul,” turn up the volume and enjoy.
“Home for Christmas” and “The Countdown”
From the CD A Mike Winans Christmas: Timeless Noel
Doc Roc Entertainment, LLC (2010) http://www.mikewinans.com/
Mike Winans, songwriter and senior producer for Bad Boy Records and former member of Winans Phase II, has chosen the Christmas season to release his first solo CD.
Both singles from the CD, “Home for Christmas” and “The Countdown,” focus on the anticipation of the 25th Day of December and are fueled by Winans’ trademark electro-R&B energy.
“Home for Christmas” is not the 1940s chestnut but a new composition driven by smooth, mid-tempo polyrhythms. The message and introspection, however, are almost the same. The protagonist is weary of spending the holidays on the road and dreams of getting home to family and friends. One major difference: his dreams come true.
"The Countdown” opens with a snippet of “Carol of the Bells” and sustains the tick-tock beat as Winans anticipates Christmas Day. In the meantime, he encourages everyone to “dance like it’s Christmas day” and provides a thumping club beat to assist.
Watch TBGB later this week for an exclusive interview with Mike Winans.
Washington, DC: The Excellence in Christian Music Awards (ECMA) has been created to equip Christian/Gospel music artists with the tools necessary to be successful in the music industry.
Each year, independent Christian/Gospel artists participate in numerous award shows and programs with the hopes of winning coveted prizes and achieving industry recognition. Though this process represents the industry standard for artist recognition, it does not encourage the growth and expansion of the artists, their careers, or the forward progression of the Christian/Gospel music industry.
Independent artists, or Christian Music Industry Participants (CMIP), avidly support numerous seminars, conventions, conferences and award recognition programs with the hopes of obtaining information that will guide them to success within the industry.
The Excellence in Christian Music Awards (ECMA) will offer CMIPs the opportunity to participate in an awards process based on an objective and unbiased point system designed to identify ECMA recipients for final recognition in the national annual awards program.
The ECMA project represents a new era in the training, education, and development of Christian/Gospel music artists. ECMA provides the opportunity to maximize an artist's capabilities while recognizing their individual initiative. Engaging in this specialized ECMA program positions artists for improved successes and postures ECMA as a novelty in the Christian/Gospel music industry. Recipients will be selected from all fifty states representing the best in gospel and Christian music.
The Excellence in Christian Music Awards (ECMA) was founded by Henry Harris, President and CEO of Strategic Music Partnerships. Mr. Harris brings over 20 years of experience in assisting the independent Christian/Gospel artist in further advancing their ministries. Mr. Harris has served faithfully as President of the Stellar Award Advisory Board (SAGMA) for the past 3 years. He has been an active member for a total of 8 years. Mr. Harris brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this platform.
Rev. Johnny L. Jones of Atlanta is not nicknamed "Hurricane" for nothing. This passionate preacher summons the force of a mighty wind when he gets to singing, shouting, or delivering a message.
Thanks to Lance Ledbetter and his marvelous Dust-to-Digital enterprise, more than two and a half hours of selections from Rev. Jones’ 1,000+ hours of archived tape ministry are available to the public for the first time. The Hurricane that Hit Atlanta is two CDs packed with gospel singing, preaching, moaning, bluesy musicianship, lined-out “Doc Watts” hymns, local radio advertising, members slain by the spirit and congregational singing, the earliest track dating back to 1957.
While today's radio waves, gospel charts and mega-churches resonate with the sound of polished praise and worship, contemporary gospel, gospel hip hop and R&B-infused sacred music, many African American churches, especially smaller ones, shake the rafters like Jones’ Second Mount Olive Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Here you will hear simple, energetic renditions of traditional gospels and hymns accompanied by musicians who play with the furor of a garage blues band. The audio quality of the CDs is amazingly clear, given the low-fidelity source materials, though the project maintains its raw authenticity, like a Lomax field recording.
Jones shouts and hollers so hard I had to keep looking at the CD booklet to remind myself that he isn’t a Holiness preacher. During "My Lord is a Rock in a Weary Land," Jones all but acknowledges this by singing the famous couplet, "Some folks they call me noisy, I belong to a noisy crew/Well, we shout when we get happy, that's the way all Christians do." I did a double-take when the choir and congregation launched into the Church of God in Christ’s “Yes Lord” chant during “A Mother Loves Her Children All the Time.” Anyone who doubts that gospel music can and does cross denominational boundaries need only listen to the mesmerizing and hypnotic singing on the religious jam sessions “I Love the Lord” and “I Don’t Know What You Come to Do” to hear the sanctified influence on the Baptist beat.
Jones is accompanied by a parade of male and female soloists and the church choir, which renders deliciously amateur but nonetheless enthusiastic interpretations of classics such as “God Specializes,” “I Promised the Lord that I Would Hold Out,” and "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me."
The CD booklet, which provides archival photos and biographical information on the pastor, does not indicate when each track was recorded but it doesn’t much matter. The whole package feels timeless.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “I Love the Lord,” “Glad About It,” "God Specializes."
Author Bernard Malamud wrote that we have two lives: the life we learn from and the life we live after we’ve learned.
Malcolm (Little) Garner has led two lives. His first was as a ward of the state and a member of Chicago’s notorious Vice Lords gang, where he battled addictions and served time for petty crimes. Delivered from his addictions in 1993, Little preached his first sermon eleven years later. Soon after, he was encouraged to dedicate his rap talents, honed as a member of Kritical Kondition, to the Lord. He wrote his first gospel rap album in the mid-2000s and founded U.G.N. Records in 2006.
Now he’s looking for a “saved woman,” one who is “spiritual minded” and someone “I can trust…not tripping on cars, not tripping on clothes…I can’t wait for the day that I can propose.”
If Beyonce's "Single Ladies" is the modern anthem for single women, Malcolm Little has a similar message for single church women: “She ain’t gotta be a holy roller or perfect, she’s just gotta be worth it.”
“He Was Born” is from James “Kelly Fox!” Davis and A Bunch of Friends’ debut CD, The Best Gift. This contemplative and delicate-to-exaltative contemporary gospel ballad elaborates on the album title by simply saying thank you for the gift of “your son.”
The ensemble members, with Davis shouting in antiphonal passion, want to “be like the wise men” in dedicating their lives to Jesus and “sing like the angels…'glory to the newborn king'.”
And they do just that. After building the musical energy to the boiling point, the ensemble concludes with a flourish of the chorus from “Angels we Have Heard on High.”
James “Kelly Fox!” Davis is a native of Washington, DC. He is director of music at the Kettering Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, MD, under the leadership of Senior Pastor Bucas Sterling, III. A Bunch of Friends are literally singers who are Davis's friends.
You know times have changed when a gospel singer can trace his first public performance to day care, singing the theme song to the television show featuring Barney, the purple dinosaur.
But that’s when Corey E. Ballance, Jr., known as CJ Ballance, first wowed a crowd and his parents knew he had a gift. Now fourteen, the contemporary gospel singer ministers to the congregation at Canaan Missionary Baptist Church in Ahoskie, North Carolina. The dapper young chap with a winning smile already has two CD projects under his belt.
If God Said It is Ballance’s sophomore project. The title track and “This Too Shall Pass” are the strongest of the album’s ten selections. Their lyrics encourage listeners, young and old, to put their trust in God and things will get better...'cause He said so.
The high point of the CD comes at the conclusion of “This Too Shall Pass,” when the young Ballance, whose voice has not yet changed from alto, hits a couple of head-shakingly impressive soprano top notes. Until Ballance’s voice changes, this could serve him well as his trademark technique. I was hoping to hear more of these glass-shatterers before the disc stopped spinning.
The musicians and background vocalists who support Ballance lay down a fundamentally sound contemporary gospel groove that doesn’t overwhelm or outshine the singer. All of the songs are original compositions written and arranged by the album’s producer, Thurman Lee of Gospel Visions Entertainment, though the album could have benefited from a couple of Baptist standards for solo voice with piano.
You can tell Ballance put his heart and soul into this recording and has potential. A recommendation I have --learned from years of living with a high school choir director -- is for the singer to continue strengthening his diaphragm muscles and practice singing long lines of music from his diaphragm. This will ensure optimal breath control and prevent vocal strain and fatigue. Ballance delivers pleasantly clear notes when they are fully supported, so the foundation is there.
Needless to say, I'm sure we will be hearing more from CJ Ballance in the future.
The Indianapolis-based Williams Singers, a “new wave” quartet consisting of brothers Darnell, Dezmien, and Dezrale, inject additional lyrics, tuneful shouting, light-heartedness and at least one “I wish I had a witness” into the holiday chestnut.
The brothers’ cheerful, R&B-influenced vocals power up the one-horse open sleigh, which one of the singers admits to never having ridden in, so “let me ride…all I wanna do is ride.”
Link to history: I understand the late pastor and recording minister Rev. W. Leo Daniels was their uncle.
The eight men who comprise the all-star collective the Soul Seekers are individually talented and award-winning artists in their own right, but as a group they are unstoppable.
Their sophomore CD, the aptly-titled Soul Seekers II, was released last month and it is a masterpiece of a quartet album. It contains phenomenal songwriting and arranging, strong singing and expert musicianship. There’s not a weak selection on the ten-track CD, which was produced by group member Warryn Campbell. The album, recorded live, is quality record making; each track complements the next.
From the jangling guitar work on the funky “Holding On” and Mighty Clouds of Joy-like bass runs on the drive-tempo “He Rose,” to the bluesy, Chicago-style arrangement of the old-school “Trouble in My Way,” the album is consistent while providing shades of musical variety at every turn.
The current single is “It’s All God,” featuring Pastor Marvin L. Winans, but other strong tracks on SS II include “Come On Jesus” and "Take Your Burdens." "Come On Jesus" sounds like an early 1960s quartet outing dressed up for the new millennium. Similarly, “Take Your Burdens” features tight, exquisite and soulful harmonies sung to a solitary electric guitar accompaniment until halfway through, when bass, drums and a warbling B3 enter the picture. By bringing back the electric 1960s proto-soul sound on these two tracks, the Soul Seekers sound more traditional than many traditional groups on the gospel highway these days.
Teddy Campbell, Warryn Campbell, Nisan Stewart, John “Jubu” Smith, Gerald Haddon, Charlie Bereal, Craig Brockman and Eric Seats are to be complemented for making an album that is exciting and worth listening to again and again. Hands down, it is one of the year’s best gospel projects.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “It’s All God,” “Come On Jesus,” “Take Your Burdens.”
Boston-based singer-songwriter-producer Rick Pisano repudiates his transgressions and exalts the satisfaction of being saved on “Good News for People Everywhere,” his first gospel song.
Although he is best known for singing the blues, Pisano collaborates on this selection with an African American gospel choir and musicians who sound straight outta Nashville. Pisano shouts like Canada’s Danny Brooks (“Soulsville”), while the choristers lend tight, strong harmonies, especially on the coda.
Pisano's debut album Dawn of a Waking Man was named by the Noise, a popular Boston music magazine, as one of the 10 best independently produced albums of the year.
On “Do Something,” Bishop David G. Evans and his thunderous-voiced choir encourage you to praise God by clapping, stomping, leaping for joy, or making some kind of noise.
“I don’t care what it is,” they shout, “Do something!” The ensemble proceeds to demonstrate its point, accompanied by an energetically funky mid-tempo beat.
Bishop Evans was a co-founder of Sweet Rain Records and is now pastor of the pastor of the 27,000-member Bethany Baptist Church in Lindenwold, NJ. As CEO of Abundant Harvest Ministries, he ministers via several media platforms. He produced Pure Love, “the first romance CD for Christians,” which TBGB reviewed last November.
Inspirational hip hop artist and producer Drew released his full-length CD, In My Notebook, on 10/10/10. His goal is to “break the barriers that separate God from mainstream music.”
The artist accomplishes his objective for the album through an effluence of hip hop beats and keyboard-created melodic techno-ambience (albeit with more auto-tune than necessary). More importantly, his lyric content deliberately blurs the barriers between what constitutes a love song for a person and for God.
To wit, a number of tracks on In My Notebook liken the saved/conversion process to a courtship. For example, on “Luv U Better,” the love interest could be God or it could be a soulmate. Drew leaves it up to the listener to decide.
On other tracks, the object of affection is less opaque. The album’s first single, “I Luv’d U 1st,” is a song of unrequited love delivered from God’s perspective. “Dreamin’” muses upon God’s unconditional love to His people despite unrelenting human frailty. The enigma leads Drew to exclaim that God's love feels “too good to be true.” Meanwhile, “Love Affair” is delivered from Drew’s perspective. Here the Lord, not a lady, is the singer’s focus: “I wasn’t trying to fall in love/But you came and swept me off my feet.”
The lovely Neisha “Nai” Washington assists on “Tattoo,” the second single and arguably the best track on the album. Her supple vocals are superb and her duet with Drew is exquisite. While “Tattoo” might be the best selection on In My Notebook, the bonus tracks, “Superfan” and the rock-influenced “Use Me,” are the most rhythmically compelling.
Drew was born and raised a PK in Philadelphia and is now living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where he is minister of music at his father’s church. His In My Notebook is sure to provoke discussion among gospel music enthusiasts about the complexity of articulating agape in song.