Juanita Fleming – I Come To You (2011)

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Juanita Fleming uses her stirring life experiences to inform a new gospel-jazz project, I Come To You. Before turning her gift toward God, Fleming’s was a life spent around jazz giants, big-budget soundtracks and the stage. Each of those influences finds a place here, propelling the album into a series of brilliant vistas.

I Come To You gets underway with an ambitious group of songs, “Africa Suite,” each powered by the complex rhythms and interwoven vocals. Fleming, performing in a deeply touching contralto, opens the suite with a robust segment titled “Our God Reigneth,” featuring a propulsive, multi-layered backbeat and these bright blasts of horn-inspired keyboards. As Fleming moves into further segments titled, respectively, “You’re So Good” and “Our Father in Heaven,” a boisterous group of backing singers begins answering each of her boldly painted lyrics with their own counterweighted shouts and exclamations. It’s a joy-filled triumph.

Elsewhere, Fleming embraces a number of signature styles from the jazz idiom, beginning with the dreamy mid-tempo number “Hallelujah Abba Father,” where she explores an idiosyncratic Betty Carter-esque vocal rhythm – a style she returns to on the quietly assertive “I Belong to You.”

Fleming, showing an impressive range, also adroitly handles the breezy ballad “All The Way,” singing with a mournful grace that recalls Nina Simone. Though gospel themed, this track illustrates perfectly why she’s shared the spotlight over the years with jazz legends like Kenny Burrell, Illinois Jacquet and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band. She swings with an easy confidence both here and on the subsequent sun-splashed “Don’t Just Hang In,” which boasts a more angular, Dixieland-inspired gait.

Fleming’s deeply impressive resume also features a number of TV and film appearances, including “The Verdict,” “McBain” and “Superfly II,” among others. Her Broadway credits include “The Wiz.” In 1997, though, she decided to begin again as a gospel singer, yet carried with her that lifetime’s worth of rich musical diversity. I Come To You moves adroitly through an impressive array of styles, both musically and vocally, growing into a showcase not just for Fleming’s faith message but also for her prowess as a singer.

She displays an affinity for urbane smooth jazz on “Thank You,” street-level marching band funk on the thrillingly upbeat “We’ve Got the Victory,” and the hip R&B amalgam on “When I Pray to the Lord.” “Redeemed,” so perfectly reverent, sounds like a song that could move from this disc directly into the church hymnal. Fleming then completely reimagines the traditional hymn “Glory Glory Hallelujah,” unburdening the song from its typically sorrowful interpretations. In her hands, the track is a towering anthem of faith empowerment, sounding something like Mavis Staples.

From there, Fleming travels deeper into the Delta on “I’m So Glad to Be with God,” a harmonica-driven number that allows the singer to rip off a series of hearty wails. Gospel, of course, is one of the main tributaries of blues music – but few are the singers who can move so easily between the two principal moods within the context of a single album without stumbling badly. This Cincinnati native is one of them.

The concluding title track, in direct contrast with the album’s brash beginning, opens with a lonesome, muted trumpet, a tone that Fleming neatly mimics from a deeper range. It may be one of the bravest turns on the record, and not just because Fleming so completely gives herself over to her faith within the lyric. She also performs with such deliberative focus that it would expose frailties in a lesser vocalist.

Instead, “I Come To You” is another tour-de-force performance in an album stuffed with them.

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Juanita Fleming’s I Come To You is also available through her web site.

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