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Reimagined Spirituals And Hymns

Lord, How Come Me Here? J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Will Liverman, baritone. Paul Sanchez, piano. Leonardo Altino, cello. Caen Thomason-Redus, flute. Navona Records 6408 Total Time: 56:42 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

Soul Sanctuary: Spirituals & Hymns Maria Clark, soprano. Maria Thompson Corley, piano. Ismail Akbar, cello. Navona Records 6406 Total Time: 59:27 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

Every once in a while, composers and musicians take a moment to revisit some of America’s most endearing and deep religious music from its hymn and Negro Spiritual history. These melodies are often indelibly linked to a time gone by or with a hope for a better future. The power of their texts is often undeniable and the simplicity of their melodies has inspired a host of arrangers for decades from the very early days when Harry Burleigh began to bring this music into an even more artistic realm. A collection of eight mostly familiar spirituals and folk hymns are part of this new collection of contemporary arrangements by Shawn E. Okpebholo, who also has an original work, Two Black Churches, in the midst of these interpretations. The arrangements here are more stylized and focused on thinking of these texts within the Art Song tradition. Often first verses introduce these melodic ideas closest to their sources and then begin to move closer into the concert world. Accompaniments borrow from jazz harmonies in spots but often have a semi-impressionistic feel.

As the album progresses, Okpebholo becomes slightly more adventurous with intriguing blends of cello adding an added emotional pull for the title piece. Sometimes the accompaniment flirts with new Gospel styles of accompaniment and sometimes will shift into some darker intimations to underline implied meanings in the texts themselves. Shifting between the rich timbre of a mezzo-soprano and baritone adds an additional warm quality to this music. Undercurrents of community connections move through both moments of lament and celebration. Two Black Churches features two texts that link white supremacist attacks on Black churches some fifty years apart. Okpebholo’s music incorporates some quotation and black gospel music in this intense, and moving settings. Here in this work we find the heart and motivation for the album come together. The album becomes both a reflection of our past as well as a meditation upon where we are today in the midst of racial injustice and unrest. Okpebholo’s original piece helps guide us into deeper reflection at where we have been and are as a result.

All of this is captured in a rather stunning recording with an equally engrossing cover art to grab one’s attention.

Also released to coincide with Black History Month (most likely) is a digital-only album of new arrangements by Maria Thompson Corley of spirituals and hymns, Soul Sanctuary. There is no overlap between this and the previous album which thus provides those interested in this repertoire a new rich collection of this genre. Corley’s settings are for soprano and her approach here returns more to the improvisatory history of the spiritual as well. One of the fourteen tracks here is for piano solo with the final three adding a cello for added color. These settings are also in the grand tradition of arrangements that come from Black Gospel tradition and that makes this release slightly different from the one above. Corley’s arrangements feel a bit more suited as “special music” for worship and connect within that aspect of the tradition. The accompaniment also is in that blend of romanticism with slight impressionist qualities and expanded jazz harmonies.

These are both significant new sets of music in this tradition. One seeks to encourage us to reflect on the history and community within the struggle of a people, the other invites us into the spiritual awakening that this music can create in the listener and by so doing also connects us to both the history of these works and their significance to the communities that raise their voices in these traditional works.


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