There are recordings that most people will love, and some that by general agreement miss the mark. And certain recordings are loved by some but hated by others. This 1995 Angel-label release, now reissued on Virgin Classics, falls into a special subset of this last group. Featuring a countertenor singing African-American spirituals, it's definitely beyond offbeat. But, to borrow a formulation from U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, if you think there's even a one percent chance that you might like this album, you should buy it -- if it works for you, it will work quite overwhelmingly well.
The album's effectiveness comes from the fact that its different parts work together well and in unexpected ways. Recordings of spirituals aren't as common as they once were, and this one, executed entirely by African-American artists, completely reimagined the genre. The arrangements are not the classic ones familiar to anyone who sang them in a high school or church choir, but are new, mostly done by the late conductor Moses George Hogan for his Moses Hogan Chorale. Some are for choir, some for a soloist, and some for both together, mostly with piano. They are both subtle and varied, generally replacing the power and bluesy harmonies of the classic arrangements with quiet piano accompaniments that draw out subsidiary meanings in the texts. Hear He's Got the Whole World in His Hands (track 9), for example -- it completely lacks the big swing of the familiar choral arrangement, relying instead on an unsyncopated, almost impressionistic piano part that creates an enveloping feel. Against this, the solo part sings the familiar syncopated melody. My Lord, What a Morning has especial power, for one can imagine that "the stars begin to fall" in its piano accompaniment. The choral parts in Hogan's arrangements are more often piano than forte; in a song like God's Gonna Set This World on Fire, the partsong-like restraint is unexpected, but as you listen it seems to take on a kind of quiet confidence.
Filling out this musical vision is the countertenor of Derek Lee Ragin -- a big voice that has specialized in Handelian operatic parts but has clearly also benefited from long exposure to African-American church traditions. It may sound like a strange combination, but it comes together like a charm. The power assigned to the choir in traditional arrangements of spirituals here is transferred to the unique strength of the high male voice, which in Ragin's case has a wonderfully deliberate, rhapsodic lyricism. Sample the solo Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, track 11, to determine whether this unique album of spirituals (and a few Christmas carols) is going to work for you, and give it a chance. Or two or three, for you may never have heard an album that defines its own musical space quite like this one does.