GMCD 7224 – Jazz Hymns by Michael Raphael

Kevin Maynor – Bass, Brandt Fredriksen – Piano, Eric Olsen – Piano

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Classical Music on the Web September 2001

If a record called “Jazz Hymns” and containing some well-known titles leads you to expect extempore busking up of granny’s favourite hymns, this is something much more serious. The composer writes: “The music is more than just jazz and hymns. It is also the coming together of all the musical influences of my musical life. One can hear the influence of spirituals, pop, blues, ragtime and boogie. With all these musical influences, the music should be approached like German lieder or Italian art song – a sort of American lieder, if you will, using a classical vocal technique.”
To tell the truth, I found this basically mainstream contemporary music of a melodic kind, not more influenced by the above influences that any recent music is likely to be. The themes are strong, of a spirituals-revivalist-gospel cut (some are the original hymn-tunes, some newly-composed) and the accompaniments very inventive. It is typical of a whole modern school of American church music, where the practical, up-front, get-up-and-pray-brother aspect is to the fore. If you expect church music to sound like Sir John Stainer this won’t be for you, but having been involved myself in performances of music of this kind in the Milan Methodist Church (where musical tastes tend toward the American) I can say that it is often involving both for the performers and the congregation, beyond its apparent musical worth. It’s a type of music which is not afraid to be banal by stating the obvious, but then religious truths are obvious truths, except that they need nonetheless to be said over and over again. It’s also a type of music which wears its religious heart on its sleeve, which tends not to be to English taste or are things changing? In the case of these songs the musical worth is high and there is a lot of variety of treatment, from the mournful “Calvary” to the mystical “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” and the joyfully dancing “Old time religion”. Ideally I think this is music to be experienced in the flesh, and in a church, for it needs to be shared as a religious experience, and I would like to think that those who buy the disc and are able to perform it will order the music too and pass the message on (Are scores available? I sent an e-mail to Guild asking for information, but they didn’t bother to reply).
They will, however, be lucky if they have voices to match Kevin Maynor’s splendid deep bass (not for nothing has he been hailed as a new Paul Robeson) and the two splendid pianists (they alternate for some reason, they don’t play together), all to be enjoyed in a clear but warm recording.
Not long ago I was recommending a disc of (mostly) non-religious American songs sung by Nathan Gunn (“The American Anthem”). If you took my advice and don’t regret it, then get this, too. It shows another side of American song and one which could appeal widely.