In 2005, veteran jazz pianist Willie Pickens turned 74. By that age, most improvisers have long since recorded their most essential work. But Pickens may very well be an exception; recorded at various sessions in 2005, Pickens' Jazz Spirit project is quite possibly his crowning achievement as a musician. Southport had enough material from Pickens' Jazz Spirit sessions to put out two CDs, and Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were released simultaneously on Valentine's Day 2006. Perhaps Southport should have released them as a two-CD set instead of offering two separate releases; stylistically, there are no major differences between the two Jazz Spirit albums, both of which offer an instrumental hard bop/post-bop/soul-jazz take on Christian-based music. Although Vol. 1 is excellent, Vol. 2 is arguably a bit more essential. Those who are on a tight budget may want to acquire Vol. 2 first, and anyone who starts out with this 60-minute CD certainly can't go wrong with Pickens' moving interpretations of "Down by the Riverside," "My God Is So High" and "Wade in the Water" (which finds Pickens performing a two-piano duet with his daughter Bethany Pickens). Whether Willie Pickens is turning his attention to African-American spirituals or material that originated in Europe (such as "Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service" and "O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High,") the Chicago-based jazzman really pours his heart into these moving performances. Anyone who savored Louis Armstrong's Louis and the Good Book or smiled when Robert De Niro had the good taste to use Donald Byrd's recording of Duke Pearson's ("Christo Redentor") in his 1993 film A Bronx Tale owes it to himself to obtain Jazz Spirit, Vol. 2 and -- if it fits into one's budget -- Jazz Spirit, Vol. 1 as well.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson