May 23, 2024

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CD review: James Weidman – Spiritual Impressions 2018: Video

  1. Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel 06:04
  2. Deep River 07:19
  3. No Hiding Place 04:33
  4. Prelude to Freedom / Troubled Waters 01:23
  5. Wade in the Water 05:40
  6. Nobody Knows the Trouble I See 05:12
  7. Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho 06:21
  8. You Hear the Lamb a Cryin’ 07:19
  9. African Spirals 06:35
  10. Let My People Go 05:35
  11. Walk Together Children 04:36

Anthony Nelson – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, flute
James Weidman – piano, organ, melodica
Harvie S – acoustic bass, electric bass
Vince Ector – drums, djembe, sangba
Ruth Naomi Floyd – vocals 

About James Weidman and his ensemble from Lemon Wire

In a career that has spanned decades, Weidman has worked as an accompanist and a side musician for acclaimed performers. Among the people he has worked with are Abbey Lincoln, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman and Kevin Mahogany, to name a few.

Weidman’s purpose with “Spiritual Impressions” is to pay homage to the music that grew out of the slave system found in the American South. He portrays slaves’ devout belief that they would be set free, just like Israelite slaves in the Bible.

The songs are invariably about trouble, freedom, and suffering in general. Weidman’s treatment of the subject matter retains its gravity, while changes in time and rhythm put an original spin on the traditional songs.

In addition to his work as a musician, Weidman is on the faculty at William Paterson University.

On “Spiritual Impressions,” Weidman plays piano, organ, and melodica. He is joined by Ruth Naomi Floyd on vocals, Anthony Nelson on tenor and soprano saxophones, as well as bass clarinet and flute. Harvie S. plays acoustic and electric bass and Vince Ector plays drums, djembe, and sangba.
“Spiritual Impressions”: the sound of tribute

While all 11 tracks have laudable qualities, two stand out. “Wade in the Water” is a popular song in black American churches. Often sung during baptism services, (not always, but frequently), the symbolism of water and its purifying effect on sinners make it an emotional song for congregants.

The song opens with drum clacks and a driving, rumbling bass befitting a rock song. The organ takes over the soundscape, softly. Then Floyd’s vocals begin. Her voice is flexible and takes on several dynamics in the span of just a few lines. Going from legato to staccato and from mid-range to high, listeners expect the singer to miss a note or a beat. It doesn’t happen. Her voice is a trained instrument. And while the instrumentation is at times enthralling, the organ showcase gets a bit dizzying, and listeners find themselves missing the vocal part. On the second half of the song, the ensemble seems to start the song over again. The soft clack and thump of the drums signal that a new motif is coming. The vocals return, over soft instrumentation. In fact, at one point the instruments drop out and Floyd’s voice is on display. This happens to nice effect.

“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” is a song whose 19th-century roots are obvious. Floyd’s vocals are a mix of crisp and smooth. The tone is hopeful and serious. The horns do an effective job of punctuating the lyrical line. Floyd’s change in dynamics again helps the song come to life. The upright bass and piano have a showcase almost midway through the song. Their interplay reminds listeners of the vocal part. Also, it is a respectful touch that the songs on “Spiritual Impressions” manage to maintain the somber tone appropriate to the songs’ messages, while also sounding like jazz. However, the songs do not sound like party songs.

The Vinyl Anachronist

Weidman and his ensemble pay tribute to a difficult time in American history on “Spiritual Impressions.” The group makes the songs sound contemporary without forgetting about their original purpose.

Keyboard player James Weidman has taken traditional spirituals and has transformed them into straightforward jazz pieces played by an outstanding ensemble. I really enjoyed the way Byrd pared his tunes down so that the music could come through–as you can tell, I’m not big on the message. But somehow that added to my enjoyment; after all, I think “Amazing Grace” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written from a purely musical standpoint. I’m intrigued by sacred music and how it summons the purest of inspirations from artists and performers.

Spiritual Impressions follows that template. No one expects songs such as “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “You Hear the Lamb A Cryin'” to swing as hard as they do here, which is what makes this recording so thrilling and alive. You start to see the musical beauty of each tune, the richness of the melodies and the emotional investment of all these performers.

Weidman has played for such legends as Abbey Lincoln, Cassandra Wilson and Steve Coleman, and he surrounds himself with such stellar performers as horn and woodwind master Anthony Nelson, bassist Harvie S and drummer Vince Ector. The master stroke, however, is the inclusion of Ruth Naomi Floyd as the vocalist. (I remember seeing Floyd perform at a music festival in Portland a few years ago, and while I wasn’t in the mood for gospel at the time I was mightily impressed with her performance.) Weidman and Floyd have worked together before–Weidman was the producer and arranger on three of her albums. Floyd’s voice has an earthy and genuine sweetness to it that supports her powerful range. The Eric Byrd album won me over once Byrd started singing–I really dig his voice–and I have the same reaction here.

Of course there’s more to spirituals than the religious context–this is music that digs deep into slavery, forced labor, war and ultimately liberation. That’s the hidden depth that I find attractive, and why I could listen to this album over and over. And I have. Highly recommended.

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