Religious pretexts have been a part of jazz since the beginning, elevated by Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, the entire discography of Mary Lou Williams, and to a certain extent select works of Wynton Marsalis. The Renolds Jazz Orchestra present this ten-part suite of deeply hued instrumentals composed and arranged by saxophonist Fritz Renold with an all-star international band, occasionally featuring the vocals of Helen Savari-Renold. The program represents a full story on the birth, influence, killing, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with contemporary themes of oppression, persecution, and fear leading to revival, hope, and progress. Musically, the group uses many types of modern big band and Latin frameworks, European classicism, and the high octave voice of Helen Renold. While the charts are generally compelling and hold interest, the vocal component is for acquired tastes leaning to Sheila Jordan or Irene Aebi. At times overbearing, at others thankfully brief, Helen Renold's singing is not by any means poor, but seems a sidebar component that is relatively unnecessary. The music stands on its own as being an effective tool to convey the pious, cautionary tale's message. Best to listen for the outstanding instrumentalists like saxophonists Tommy Smith, Donny McCaslin, Greg Tardy, and Bernd Konrad, trumpeters Randy Brecker, Steven Bernstein, and Barrie Lee Hall, trombonist Vincent Gardner, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and drummer Adam Nussbaum. The band starts with thematic old-time jazz on "Grave Intrigues" punctuated by the vocalists haunting warnings and incantations, moves to the high-energy modal instrumental "Caiaphas" with bursting brass, and the sly, sultry, then bolero infused "The Potter's Field" also expressing themes of injustice with a Middle Eastern shading. "Let This Blood Be on Us!" and "The Rooster Crows" have Smith and McCaslin on battling tenors with Brecker joining the fray before a theme of atonement, with the Ellington styled piano of the consistently outstanding Jamshied Sharifi adding dark and foreboding tones to an intimately spiritual bop with the clamoring horns shouting refrains of "show me". "The Resurrection" displays a happier piano from Sharifi, while the album's finest track "The Great Commission" is built minimally by the piano lead, with flutes leading the orchestra through a sexy caravan of hope. "Ascension" is serene to declaratory with bass clarinet and flute illuminating the sermon, while the finale "Cube" is the only other instrumental, closing in an easy swing to rhumba rhythm with Brecker's solo the exclamation point. While this might make a great Christmas gift for believers, the secularists might not be able to get past the vocal libretto. Nonetheless, there's some extraordinary musicianship happening here, guided by whatever power you believe in, but most especially the special spiritual quality of jazz.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos