Willie Pickens

Jazz Spirit, Vol. 1

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Performing jazz interpretations of Christian-based songs is hardly something brand new. Christian music, especially African-American spirituals, has been influencing jazz ever since the early days of Dixieland, and gospel-minded jazz has been composed by everyone from Duke Ellington ("Come Sunday") to Duke Pearson ("Christo Redentor"). But jazz albums that focus on Christian songs exclusively are a rarity, and most Christmas-oriented jazz albums don't count because so many Christmas pop standards written during the 20th century have a secular outlook that the old European Yuletide carols did not have (while "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman" and "Silent Night" are Christian-oriented songs, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is pure pop). On Jazz Spirit, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (which were recorded in 2005), veteran pianist Willie Pickens brings an instrumental hard bop/post-bop/soul-jazz perspective to an abundance of Christian-oriented material; what the veteran pianist does on this album is not totally unprecedented, but it certainly isn't an idea that has been beaten into the ground, either. Make no mistake: Jazz Spirit, Vol. 1 is a bona fide jazz CD, and Pickens doesn't compromise his improvisatory outlook one iota on familiar songs that range from "O My Soul Bless Your Redeemer" to "Let Us Break Bread Together" to W.B. Bradley's "Jesus Loves Me." Stylistically, the arrangements could be described as a mixture of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, pianistic soul-jazz (as in Gene Harris or Ray Bryant) and early-'60s John Coltrane; it's an appealing combination, and one that sounds perfectly natural on well-known sacred material. Jazz Spirit, Vol. 2 is perhaps slightly more essential than Vol. 1, but Vol. 1 is excellent nonetheless and is well worth obtaining.

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