Friday, January 19, 2018

James Weidman's Spiritual Impressions

This jazz release is very similar to the Eric Byrd Trio album I reviewed just a few days ago. Keyboard player James Weidman has taken traditional spirituals and has transformed them into straightforward jazz pieces played by an outstanding ensemble. I really enjoyed the way Byrd pared his tunes down so that the music could come through--as you can tell, I'm not big on the message. But somehow that added to my enjoyment; after all, I think "Amazing Grace" is one of the most beautiful songs ever written from a purely musical standpoint. I'm intrigued by sacred music and how it summons the purest of inspirations from artists and performers.

Spiritual Impressions follows that template. No one expects songs such as "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "You Hear the Lamb A Cryin'" to swing as hard as they do here, which is what makes this recording so thrilling and alive. You start to see the musical beauty of each tune, the richness of the melodies and the emotional investment of all these performers.

Weidman has played for such legends as Abbey Lincoln, Cassandra Wilson and Steve Coleman, and he surrounds himself with such stellar performers as horn and woodwind master Anthony Nelson, bassist Harvie S and drummer Vince Ector. The master stroke, however, is the inclusion of Ruth Naomi Floyd as the vocalist. (I remember seeing Floyd perform at a music festival in Portland a few years ago, and while I wasn't in the mood for gospel at the time I was mightily impressed with her performance.) Weidman and Floyd have worked together before--Weidman was the producer and arranger on three of her albums. Floyd's voice has an earthy and genuine sweetness to it that supports her powerful range. The Eric Byrd album won me over once Byrd started singing--I really dig his voice--and I have the same reaction here.

Of course there's more to spirituals than the religious context--this is music that digs deep into slavery, forced labor, war and ultimately liberation. That's the hidden depth that I find attractive, and why I could listen to this album over and over. And I have. Highly recommended.

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