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Jazz artists bring new dimension to gospel

Scott Haas
Jazz artists bring new dimension to gospel

Gregory Groover Jr., Kenny Garrett, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, and Javon Jackson have all released jazz recordings within the past nine months that place gospel in the foreground. While jazz has its roots in the spirituality of the Black church, the current phenomenon of gospel-jazz recordings is more explicit and widespread than ever. 

“I think there’s a greater need for connectivity amongst people and their music in an interdisciplinary way that hasn’t existed before,” Groover told the Banner. “The idea of going into your prayer chest and, during the past two years, of having a lot of time to reflect, may have led to more inclusion of spiritual lessons.”

Groover, a Boston sax player and educator as well as the scion of a well-known family of leadership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, released “Negro Spiritual Songbook, Volume 2 (The Message),” in August 2021. The album includes standards of the church, including, “Go Down Moses,” and “My Lord What a Morning,” but renders them in modern, improvisational jazz arrangements.

Gregory Groover, Jr, saxophonist COURTESY PHOTO

“I think there’s a need for listeners to know more about the artist in their music,” Groover said. “You can’t not hear Coltrane’s deep and profound love of gospel. So now there’s more space in jazz to embrace that individuality.”

Jackson, another saxophonist and a 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 brings spirituals into new dimensions by identifying what links the Black church to modernity. Pairing a writer best known for her fearless approach to literature and social justice with spiritual tradition unveils a framework that was always there. Now, rather than implied, the artist’s inspiration is revealed openly.

Just as clearly, vibraphonist and composer Joel Ross’s single, “The Prayer,” released in March 2022, has strong elements of gospel-infused melody. His album “The Parable of the Poet,” released just this month, adds other tunes next to the song, giving the whole project a contemporary feel. Joining Ross are 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 own recording, “The 7th Hand,” in January. The album is his first since “Omega,” which was named the #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 the implementation of spiritual traditions into his art. As described by Blue Note, the label on which he records, “’The 7th Hand’ derives its title from a question steeped in Biblical symbolism: If the number 6 represents the extent of human possibility, Wilkins wondered what it would mean — how it would sound — to invoke divine intervention and allow that seventh element to possess his quartet.”    

Wilkins added, “I wanted to remix the Southern Black baptism, and also provide critique on what is considered sanctified and who can be baptized.”

Keanna Faircloth, jazz radio host PHOTO: KHADIYAH THOMAS

Turning 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 “Out-standing Jazz Album — Instrumental” at 2022’s 53rd NAACP Image Awards, remarkably weaves in the urban sounds Garrett heard growing up in Detroit with the musical traditions of the church. Included on the recording are the voices of Linny Smith, a choir director at The Greater Allen AME, and gospel singer Sheherazade Holman.

Keanna Faircloth, a long time radio host recently heard on WBGO, spoke to the Banner about the current trend synthesizing jazz and gospel.

“What we’re seeing and hearing brings us back to what is familiar in the tradition of the Black church,” she said. “It’s a response to the current social and political climate. The spiritual foundation of the church is a rock, a way of grounding ourselves.”

arts, gospel, jazz, music