DUKE ELLINGTON & MAHALIA JACKSON / “Come Sunday”
In a word: sublime. This is what many believe heaven sounds like, well, at least one part of heaven (if there’s no room from Coltrane, then it’s not really heaven). This is from a 1958 pairing of these two most esteemed members of our musical family. Mahalia Jackson is often (and rightfully) hailed as the world’s greatest gospel singer. That designation usually leads one to imagine whooping and hollering, but this number, majestic in its serene yet passionatge spirituality, is the exact opposite, and hence underscores just how great Mahalia was. Indeed, she was far more than just the greatest "gospel" singer, she was arguably one of the greatest vocalist of her time regardless of musical genre. Moreover, many people don’t realize Mahalia had serious jazz roots. She hailed from New Orleans, the cradle of American popular music. Along with her peer, Louis Armstrong, the two of them virtually not only defined American vocal music of their time, directly or indirectly they also indelibly influenced every major American vocalist who followed them. Mahalia sprang up out of Jim Crow New Orleans in the late Twenties, journeyed up to Chicago to hook up with Tom Dorsey, a piano player of world-renowned ill-repute who quit the blues to take up religious music. Needless to say, that duo got kicked out of many a church, literally banished for "playing the devil’s music." Mahalia’s defense was simple: that’s the way we did it back home. Mahalia is the ‘Black’ of the title in Ellington's ‘Black, Brown and Beige’ suite, i.e. the ultra-poor who were the bedrock of the then burgeoning African American cultural/musical expressions; or to put it another way that may sound sacrilegious, but if you think about it deeply enough, you’ll understand: if Mahalia had been in New Orleans during Katrina, more likely than not, she would have been either at the Superdome or the Convention Center, or stuck in some attic, or dead. And that’s the truth. Model citizen of the professional persuasion, Edward Kennedy Ellington represents the Brown—elegant of taste and urbane of manners but unalterably committed to his people. Thus, he wrote this multi-part musical masterpiece, and not only wrote it, but also staged it. Annually, Duke would rent Carnegie Hall and present a concert of his music in the format he wanted. These post-World War II concerts are legendary. Four of them are available as 2-CD sets for 1946, 47, 48 and 49. "Come Sunday" is critically acclaimed as the diamond in the brilliant composition. Eventually, in the late fifties, Duke and Mahalia recorded together. Not just once but a number of times—Columbia has recently issued an Ellington performance at the Newport Jazz Festival that included Mahalia offering a live version of "Come Sunday." But I think this initial studio performance is the master version. It is taken from a French pressing (although Columbia has now released an expanded version that includes alternate tracks). As lagniappe, we include the Ray Nance solo violin version of “Come Sunday.” Nance’s tone on strings, much like Mahalia’s moan, is utterly beautiful; full, magnificent, passionate. If you listen closely to the Mahalia version you can hear Nance providing a sensitive obbligato in the background. Undoubtedly he was so inspired by Mahalia that he rose high above his normal magnificence to render to us one of the most serious recordings of jazz violin ever. I will not gush over how beautiful the melody is, nor go ga-ga over the harmonic sophistication, or opine profusely about the deft voicings of the orchestra, I will simply say: listen, listen and be filled with holy wonder. —Kalamu ya Salaam I definitely hear it now Another great recording. Mahalia’s control and phrasing remind of, on the one hand, a classical musician. I kept expecting her to catch the spirit and really let loose, but she never did. (Which works very well—I dig it.) On the other hand, the obvious vocal power Mahalia possesses (but in this case, decides to keep reigned in) reminds me of one of her musical daughters, Aretha Franklin, and specifically of Aretha’s bombastic, astounding version of Marvin Gaye’s "Wholly Holy." I could respond here in length. Instead, I’ll save it for a full write up of "Wholly Holy." I’m not a Mahalia fan, so I never understood the comparisons, but I definitely hear it now. —Mtume ya Salaam
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