Jazz has long drawn from show tunes, Tin Pan Alley, and a handful of great composers like Ellington, Strayhorn and Monk for material. Gospel? Not so much. But whenever gospel is used as the vehicle for delivering jazz, the results have been pretty good, sometimes, well, inspirational. One of Grant Green’s best outings was a set of soul-stirring interpretations of traditional hymns called Feelin The Spirit. Charlie Haden and Hank Jones made a couple of intimate records, Steal Away and Come Sunday, the latter of which was covered here at the beginning of this year. But you would think that given the richness of the material that these sturdy songs from the pew can offer, we’d see more of these kind of records. Pianist Pamela York obviously agrees, and did something about that by making such a record of her own.
Christened Lay Down This World: Hymns And Spirituals, this Berklee grad, wife and mother went way back to find some hymns to bring them a new, swinging vitality. Assisted by Lynn Seaton (bass) and Sebastian Whitaker (drums), the trio jazzes up eleven, pre-20th century canticles so old, seven of them credited to those legendary composers “Public Domain” and “Traditional.”
York adds snap, swing and soulfulness to these ancient songs, but steadfastly stays true to their melodies, putting together the best things from both worlds. Her delivery is confident, relaxed and never sounding labored. She goes about interpreting the psalms in several ways, keeping monotony at bay. Solemn paeans such as “Be Thou My Vision” and “Deep River,” caressed by York’s thoughtful articulations, are contrasted with spirited swingers like “Ain’t-a That Good News!” and the propulsive waltz “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” is converted into a lively, Latin-jazz number made even better by Andre Hayward’s trombone (he also appears on the blues shuffle “Soon I Will Be Done”).
York’s best arrangement — and performance — comes on “I Know That My Redeemer Lives — Glory, Hallelujah!” She turns that into a steady rockin’ reggae number. Here, she works the spaces between the notes as much as the notes themselves, and dances around that island beat as nimbly as Monty Alexander does. Seaton drops a precise, funky pulse and when soloing fearlessly plays up in the high register. Seaton gets plenty of other showcases, most notably on “Be Thou My Vision” and a lovely solo to start “Were You There?” Whitaker adds just enough zest through fills and multi-rhythms to add an undercurrent to propel tracks like “Fortress” and “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me,” which is converted into a cool-strutting, slow walking blues.
Just like those other great gospel-jazz records, you don’t have to be a religious person to appreciate and enjoy Pamela York’s well-conceived scores of these songs. It’s a twist on jazz that isn’t new, but is done too infrequently, and injects some pizazz into the tried-and-true piano trio. Ms. York careful song selection and her treatments of these church creations make Lay Down This World righteous listening on Sunday or any other day of the week.
Lay Down This World: Hymns And Spirituals will be released November 13 by Jazzful Heart Music. Visit Pamela York’s website for more info.