Jazz artists bring a new dimension to gospel
Kenny Garrett, saxophonist PHOTO: COURTESY OF ARK MANAGEMENT
Gregory Groover Jr., Kenny Garrett, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross and Javon Jackson have all released jazz recordings in the past nine months that put gospel front and center. While jazz has its roots in black church spirituality, the current phenomenon of gospel-jazz recordings is more explicit and widespread than ever.
“I think there’s a greater need for connectivity between people and their music in a cross-disciplinary way that didn’t exist before,” Groover told Banner. “The idea of going into your prayer box and, over the past couple of years, having plenty of time to think has perhaps led to a greater inclusion of spiritual lessons.”
Groover, a Boston saxophonist and educator as well as the scion of a well-known family of African Methodist Episcopal Church leaders, released “Negro Spiritual Songbook, Volume 2 (The Message)”, in August 2021. The album includes church standards , including, “Go Down Moses” and “My Lord What a Morning,” but renders them in modern, improvised jazz arrangements.
“I think listeners need to know more about the artist in their music,” Groover said. “You can’t help but hear Coltrane’s deep, deep love for gospel. So now there’s more space in jazz to embrace that individuality.
Jackson, another saxophonist and professor at the University of Hartford, collaborated with renowned poet Nikki Giovanni to create “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni”, released in February 2022. Their recording takes spirituals to new dimensions by identifying what connects the black church to modernity. Pairing a writer best known for her fearless approach to literature and social justice with spiritual tradition uncovers a framework that has always been there. Now, rather than implicit, the artist’s inspiration is revealed openly.
Just as clearly, vibraphonist and composer Joel Ross’ single “The Prayer”, released in March 2022, contains strong elements of gospel-infused melody. His album “The Poet’s Parable”, released this month, adds other tunes alongside the song, giving the whole project a contemporary feel. Alongside Ross, Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Maria Grand on tenor saxophone, Marquis Hill on trumpet, Kalia Vandever on trombone, Sean Mason on piano, Rick Rosato on bass, Craig Weinrib on drums and Gabrielle Garo on flute .
Wilkins released his rrecording, “The 7th Hand”, in January. The album is his first since “Omega,” which was named the No. 1 jazz album of 2020 by The New York Times. With an album cover showing Wilkins being baptized, what we hear are musical reflections on his legacy as well as opportunities to imagine implementing spiritual traditions into his art. As Blue Note, the label it records on, describes, “‘The 7th Hand’ draws its title from a question rooted in biblical symbolism: Whether the number 6 represents the breadth of human possibilities, Wilkins wondered what it would mean – how it would sound – to invoke divine intervention and allow this seventh element to possess its quartet.
Wilkins added, “I wanted to remix Southern black baptism, and also provide a critique of what is considered sanctified and who can be baptized.”
Looking to the past as a guide to the future, saxophonist and composer Kenny Garrett released ‘Songs from the Ancestors’ in August 2021. The album, which won the ‘Out-standing Jazz Album – Instrumental’ award at the 53rd 2022’s NAACP Image Awards, remarkably weaves the urban sounds Garrett heard growing up in Detroit with the musical traditions of the church. The recording features the vocals of Greater Allen AME choir director Linny Smith and gospel singer Sheherazade Holman.
Keanna Faircloth, a longtime radio host recently heard on WBGO, spoke to the banner about the current trend of synthesizing jazz and gospel.
“What we see and hear brings us back to what is familiar in black church tradition,” she said. “It is a response to the current social and political climate. The spiritual foundation of the church is a rock, a means of anchoring us.