These two amazing releases represent the African American sacred steel tradition, which was first developed in Pentecostal churches by Willie Eason in the 1930s. Though steel guitar originated in Hawaii, the pedal steel has been embraced in the worship at churches in states ranging from Florida to Michigan, where its sound often mimics singing voices and moans, stirring the emotions and fitting perfectly into deep worship.
The Lee Boys, a Miami-based funk and gospel band that performs within the sacred steel tradition, recently released their fourth album, Testify. This family group includes three brothers, Alvin Lee (guitar), Derrick Lee and Keith Lee (vocals), and their three nephews, Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel guitar), Alvin Cordy Jr. (bass) and Earl Walker (drums), who all grew up in the House of God church in Perrine, Florida and learned to play various musical instruments. The fact that their father and grandfather, Rev. Robert E. Lee, was the pastor and a steel guitar player at the church must have definitely led them to this tradition.
Even though sacred steel is rooted in gospel music, the steel guitar also figures prominently in other genres such as blues, R&B, jazz, rock, and country music. Indeed, Testify is the perfect example of the variety of musical aspects that can be expressed within this musical tradition. You can’t help but dance when you listen to tracks like the title tune, “Testify,” with its funky bass lines. I personally love songs such as “Smile” and “Feel the Music,” which make me enjoy the positive energies that they bring. The band concludes the album with “We Need to Hear from You.” In the first half of the track, vocalists’ free and sincere voices lead you into quiet worship. Then Collier’s steel guitar kicks in the second half, totally changing the worship style into an up-beat rock tune. It is such a clever way to entertain the listeners while keeping the purpose of prayer.
The Slide Brothers consist of steel guitarists Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell and Darick Campbell, with drummer Aubrey Ghent. Cooke, who Nashville country steel guitarists have dubbed the “B.B. King of gospel steel guitar,” grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a family that went to the Church of the Living God, Jewell Dominion, which had a strong steel guitar tradition. The group’s album was produced by Robert Randolph, one of the most successful pedal steel guitarists and leader of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who has made it his mission to share the extraordinary talents of the masters of the sacred steel tradition with audiences throughout the world.
The group demonstrates the bluesy nature of steel guitars throughout their debut project. “Sunday School Blues” starts with moaning steel guitars, leading into a groovy blues tune. “Praise You,” featuring reigning blues queen Shemekia Copeland, lets us hear a great collaboration between human voice and the timbre of steel guitars. Following is a promotional video for the album:
In order to fully appreciate the differences between these two groups, you can listen to their different interpretations of “Wade in the Water” (The Lee Boys “Wade in the Water” and the Slide Brothers “Wade in the Water”). These performances showcase the steel guitar’s powerful mournful sounds which fit perfectly with the strong message of this traditional spiritual.
These new releases are not only a perfect introduction to the sacred steel tradition for those like myself who are not familiar with the genre, but will also be highly prized by those who already appreciate and collect this music. The Lee Boys and the Slide Brothers are certainly destined to become influential steel guitar masters in the music industry now that they’ve expanded their audience beyond the church.
Tasha Cobbs recently reached #2 on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums’ chart with her debut album, Grace, produced by the award-winning gospel artist VaShawn Mitchell. The album captures the talented songwriter and long-time worship leader in a unique live performance.
As a pastor’s child, Cobbs grew up in the church and has been performing gospel music since her teenage years. In addition to being a musician, Cobbs has become a nationally recognized minister, who now serves at the Young Adult Division of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship and at the Dream Center Church of Atlanta.
Her signature voice, strong yet soothing, leads the congregation into the spirit of worship. The simple words and melodies of her songs, including “Get Up” and “Love You Forever,” rouse the listener into a feeling of fellowship. Cobbs radiates positive energy with songs like “Happy” because, as she explains, “there are things in life that would make me sad or that I don’t like, but at the core of who I am I have the joy of the Lord. That means I can command my circumstances. The attitude of the Believer is that we have the victory in everything.” Throughout Grace, Cobbs radiates her personal warmth and inspires through her worship leadership.
The following video is a performance of Cobbs’s latest single, “Break Every Chain,” which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top Digital Gospel Song chart:
Cobbs’s career as a nation-wide minister of music has just begun. Although she appreciates the national recognition she has gotten for her musical talent, her purpose, as she states, remains the same: “to, without fail, lead God’s people into His presence.” Grace illustrates Cobbs’s commitment to this goal, and her extraordinary ability to achieve it.
New York City-based vocalist José James has released his independently produced record, No Beginning No End, on Blue Note Records. After gaining recognition as a new-generation jazz singer since his debut album, TheDreamer (2008), James says that he doesn’t want to be considered a jazz singer anymore; instead, he regards jazz as something which freed him “as an artist to just write without any boundaries.” Songs from this album flow seamlessly with boundary-less musical expression.
James independently produced and recorded this album. “I feel like this is my first album as an artist… nothing but myself and my relationship and history with my music” says James. A great team of collaborators— bassist Pino Palladino, pianist/composer Robert Glasper, and R&B singer/songwriter/guitarist Emily King who is featured in a sweet love song, “Heaven on the Ground,”— help James achieve an original sound.
The first single, “Trouble,” features a catchy, pop bass line, which James came up with and recorded on his phone while riding the subway. On it, he sings about a troubled man who wishes someone would listen to him tell of his life’s struggles. The warm instrumentation on “Come To My Door” perfectly complements James’s voice, giving the song mass appeal.
With African-flavored percussion and hand-clapping, “Sword + Gun” features French-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra, who adds a unique sound to the album. “Do You Feel” reveals the influence of ’60s soul singers like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles on James’s singing. James concludes the album with “Tomorrow,” a beautiful ballad that features a piano and a string quartet, whose simple textures truly make this album boundary-less.
The following video, which contain live performances of “It’s All Over Your Body,” “Sword + Gun,” “Trouble,” and “Come to My Door,” showcases James’s dynamite vocals and highlights the album’s many great tracks.
No Beginning No End is a collection of polished smoothness. Smooth vocals. Smooth lyrics. Smooth horn and bass lines…. Though his music is hard to categorize, Jose James makes undeniably smooth music.
Le’Andria Johnson, the 2010 Sunday Best winner, has come to the forefront of the gospel music industry after receiving a Grammy Award in 2012 for Best Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music Performance and two Stellar Awardsin in 2013, for Contemporary Female of the Year and Best New Artist.
Born in Orlando, Florida, on January 23, 1983, to Bishop Gregory Johnson and Pastor Sharon Johnson, she has sung in church since the age of two. Before her appearance on BET’s Sunday Best, she was a twice-divorced single mother of three children without a home. Her desire to give a better life to her children pushed her to audition for the show, and throughout the third season she impressed judges Yolanda Adams, Donnie McClurkin, and Tina Campbell with her vocal ability and deep, raspy voice. Johnson ended up winning the competition plus a national recording contract with Music World Gospel.
This special deluxe edition of The Awakening of Le’Andria Johnson includes songs from her two EPs: the first which was released under the same title in 2011 and debuted on the Billboard gospel album charts at #1, and the second released in 2012 as The Evolution of Le’Andria Johnson. Her performances from Sunday Best are arranged into two medleys, illustrating why she was chosen as the winner and why she has become a successful gospel singer. These medleys are also proof of her ability to perform not only contemporary arrangements, but also traditional gospel music.
Johnson’s recorded version of “He Was There,” also performed during the show, is soulful testimony of her relationship with God, who gave her a chance to turn her life around. Songs such as “Make Him Like You” show her possibilities as a cross-over artist with its R&B stylings and lyrical tactics, while beautifully describing both romantic relationships and religious beliefs. “New Reasons,” featuring female doo-wop singers, gives a different twist to the album, while Johnson demonstrates her talent as a songwriter with “I Shall Leap,” co-written with her brother Terrence.
The following live performance of her first hit single “Jesus” shows how Johnson’s powerful and sincere singing has the ability to touch people’s hearts:
Whether the songs are traditional or contemporary, Johnson’s voice never loses its strength or conviction. Her belief, determination, and love for music and God are present every time she sings.
Artists: Hiromi Uehara with Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips
Label: Telarc International
Release date: October 9, 2012 (US release in 2013)
Hiromi Uehara, a Japanese pianist/composer who creates powerful works of jazz fusion, has released her 9th original album entitled Move. Hiromi debuted in the jazz world in 2003, and she started the Trio Project with Anthony Jackson (a Grammy-nominated electric bass guitarist) and Simon Philips (an English jazz, pop and rock drummer) after her last album, Voice (2011). As her radiant performance of the title track in the following video demonstrates, Hiromi has crowd-pulling charisma, with expressions emanating from her face and entire body, as well as the piano. She states, “When I play music, I realize that it really filters emotions.” Clearly, this album is filled with the performers’ emotions, unique sounds, and interpretations.
As Hiromi explains in the liner notes, “Move” represents the sounds of an alarm clock and the bustle and rush of the morning. It’s the beginning of the trio’s storytelling about a day in the life of a person. “Brand New Day” starts with light and beautiful flows from the piano, reflecting motivation to start a new day. Then, electric keyboard sounds catch our attention in the beginning of “Endeavor,” which I imagine to be the subway coming towards us. The speed of this track represents the rush hour in the station and maybe the confusion and irritation of the commuters. Quiet rain starts falling with “Rainmaker,” eventually becoming a heavy downpour. But “rain starts without notice and stops without notice,” because “rain always moves on, just like anything in life” (from the liner notes).
The next section of the album features the three part “Suite Escapism.” “Reality” with its whirls of sound expresses our difficulty in coming to terms with reality and our determination to fight it. What follows is a beautiful representation of a dreamy and abstracted mind in “Fantasy.” The final section, appropriately titled “In Between,” attempts to find the middle ground. Hiromi explains, “Because you dream, you can live in reality. Going back and forth, and in between.” That’s exactly what the music in the suite conveys to our ears.
After this existential workout, the funky “Margarita!” allows everyone to dance and have fun! The final track, “11:49 PM,” concludes the album perfectly. Reflecting upon the day brings excitement, and then we finally drift off to sleep.
Move definitely teaches us that imagination brings enjoyment, as does the creativity of this fabulous jazz trio. They move, they tell stories together… until we finally fall asleep, hoping that tomorrow will move in us in new ways.
Following her last studio album, Unexpected (2009), Angie Stone has come back to the soul music scene with a new album, Rich Girl. In the liner notes, Stone confesses that she has been somewhat unsatisfied after her collaborative works with many musicians and producers over the past few years. She explains, “I shaved a lot of my originality off when merging with so many other people. Fans weren’t getting Angie Stone. … I knew I had to get back to my own music and skills. It’s time for Angie to do Angie.” Indeed, Rich Girl was born from Angie Stone’s strong desire to be herself with her music, and every song in this album allows us to hear her true voice.
I’m sure that listeners will agree with Stone as soon as they start playing this album. “Music’s in my heart and it’s in my soul. There’s nothing you can do, no, ‘cause I’m in control,” she sings in “Intro: Real Music.” This leads into the first single, “Do What You Gotta Do,” which is my favorite and also a perfect presentation of the album’s concept. I can’t help smiling every time I listen to this song and watch its music video because I can tell that Stone really means and feels what she is singing about and the music is setting her free:
On the slow and mellow “Proud of Me,” she expresses a woman’s relief from a difficult relationship with a man, singing “I’m proud of me. … I made the best decision of my life.” Her second single from the album, “Backup Plan,” represents a strong female figure, declaring every woman’s in control and can decide to leave the relationship anytime because we’ve got a backup plan always. These songs address the empowerment of women not only in the face of difficult relationships, but in life’s many challenges. Stone closes the album with the song “Sisters,” featuring Tweet, Y’Anna Crawley, Danetra Moore, and Stone’s daughter Diamond Stone. It’s a beautiful conclusion to the album, making the listeners feel loved and safe with sisterhood.
By gaining the space needed to express herself freely, Angie Stone is able to represent what a strong woman and musician should be. She continues in the liner notes, “I wrote this album from a real place. It’s not about money, it’s about being rich in everything you do, in your spirit, your purpose, and your giving to others.” Her songs in this album certainly tell us the importance of being true to ourselves, and they will surely lead us to enrichment.
Jonathan Butler, the South African-born contemporary urban jazz artist, has been creating gospel music with his jazz guitar since his 2004 release The Worship Project. The tracks “Brand New Day” and “Falling in Love with Jesus” are much loved by worshipers. Now his new album, Grace and Mercy, will surely be added to worshipers’ lists of favorite music, with R&B-driven songs such as “You’re All That I Need,” “Who Is Like the Lord,” and “Grace and Mercy.” Butler proves the power of his simple lyrics for prayer in “I Stand on Your Word,” as he sings “No matter what the situation, I believe, I believe. No matter what the circumstances, I believe, I believe:”
The second half of the album will take listeners deeper into a worship atmosphere with ballads like “Lay My Head On You” and “I Know He Cares.” The true masterpiece of the album is the medley “Moments of Worship,” with Butler blending three older worship songs. His vocal improvisations flow over a simple guitar and keyboard/organ accompaniment, lending a unique voice to his storytelling.
Butler’s simple but emotional, heartwarming melodies help us absorb the messages in each song. As he explains: “Through living you come up with stories to talk about and songs to write. These songs are personal experiences. I’m hoping these songs will affect people in a positive and wonderful way.” Certainly, Butler’s strong, warm voice will reach a lot of people who listen to this album seeking happiness and encouragement.
It seems that Heather Headley wanted to summarize her music career with her latest album, Only One in the World. The Trinidadian-American singer started her career in 1997 as a Broadway singer in the role of Nala in Lion King. Since then she’s shown a wide range of musical skills in two R&B and one gospel-oriented albums. On her new release, Headley showcases the vocal abilities that impressed her legions of Broadway fans, yet she continues to explore other dimensions as well.
In the promotion video for the album, Headley explains she wanted to record the songs she’s grown to love performing over the years. This includes a number of iconic covers, such as Hoobastank’s 2004 hit single “The Reasons.” Headley’s rendition definitely surprises, as she completely changes this rock song into a majestic ballad with her deep, strong voice, but fans will surely understand her choice. It is also refreshing to hear her interpretation of Brian McKnight’s “One Last Cry,” as she creates a more theatrical atmosphere for this well-known song. And since Headley’s currently starring in a musical adaptation of the Whitney Houston film, The Bodyguard, it’s only fitting that she’s included a cover of “Run to You.” She concludes the album with “Home” from The Wiz, once again returning to the Broadway stage for inspiration.
The album is also interspersed with new original songs, including “Hey Mama” and the title track, which reveals another side of Headley as a contemporary R&B singer:
Heather Headley’s Only One in the World is an indefinable album, lacking clear focus, but should still appeal to longtime fans.
In January 2012, when gospel artist Anthony Brown signed with Tyscot Records, company president Bryant Scott declared in a press release “[Brown is] extremely gifted as a singer, songwriter, producer, director, and playwright, making him a Triple-Threat Plus for the Kingdom of God.” As this self-titled debut album demonstrates, Brown undeniably brings exciting new music to the list of worship songs with his ensemble, Group TherAPy.
From one song to the next, Group TherAPy entertains us with constantly changing musical colors. The title track, “Group Therapy,” elicits a theater and jazz atmosphere, which pleasantly surprises the listener with a new style for worship. Changing the mood completely, the tracks “I Will Be” and “Better Days” will make you move and praise with the church clap style. Ballads like “Water,” “Your Way,” “Beyond Beyond” and “Deep Enough” make us recognize the Group’s vocal skills and Brown’s songwriting abilities. Their sharp, powerful voices will surely reach people’s hearts and bring them to a space of deep prayer. Brown’s lush voice is reminiscent of other contemporary gospel singers such as Donnie McClurkin, Richard Smallwood, Marvin Sapp, and Donald Lawrence. In fact, Smallwood and Lawrence have both mentored Brown, and tracks such as “Harvest Song” seem to reflect their influence.
The project’s first single, “Testimony,” has attracted many worshipers since it was released, and has climbed to 15 on Billboard’s gospel single chart. In the following video from TBN’s Praise the Lord show, Donnie McClurkin, who is a big fan of Brown & Group TherAPy’s music, introduces them to the audience with a strong conviction that their music will facilitate worship:
The capitalized AP in the group’s name, meaning “(God) Answers Prayers,” demonstrates their mission of singing to heal troubled minds with spiritual messages. Indeed, Anthony Brown is a great gospel therapist with brilliant assistants, and it is certain that a number of people will be healed and saved through their music.
Delivering its message of praise and worship to fans for over 12 years, Israel & New Breed sounds as good as ever on the group’s new live album, Jesus at the Center. Since the release of their last album nearly 5 years ago, band leader Israel Houghton has released solo works, many of which have won several awards including a Grammy. This double album, which includes 17 live-performance songs and 3 studio singles, will fulfill the expectations of long-term fans while attracting new audiences. It channels the atmosphere of the concert at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, where Houghton is a worship leader, and captures all the highlights of their inspirational performances. Houghton states in the liner notes, “We purposely wanted to emphasize being a resource to the church worldwide. . . There is literally something for everyone to connect to.” This album does indeed provide music for the cross-cultural audience of churchgoers worldwide.
Disc 1 presents the first half of the concert, during which Israel & New Breed amp the audience with up-beat songs. The concert begins with each member of New Breed singing parts of “Jesus at the Center” while Israel reads from Colossians 1:15-20. They kick off the music ministry with “Jesus the Same,” which exemplifies their sound with powerful beats and horns. Their simple and highly melodic songs invite audience members to participate in the spiritual experience of the music. The group moves to another powerful tune, “Rez Power,” and further elevates the audience’s excitement. “No Turning Back” has grooves that make you want to dance; “Te Amo,” (meaning “I love you” in Spanish) will make you dance even more; and “More Than Enough” will surely keep you dancing.
The live version of “Jesus at the Center” becomes a bridge between the first and second half of the concert. The audience joins in on the music-making, singing “Jesus at the center of it all. From the beginning to the end, it will always be, it’s always been you Jesus. Nothing else matters. Nothing in this world will do. Jesus, You’re the center. Everything revolves around You. Jesus, You. The center of it all.”
Disc 2 contains the second half of the concert and features mostly ballads. Both the live and studio version of “It’s Not Over (When God Is in It)” will give you goose bumps with its touching message of empowerment, and will help ease worried minds with its lyrics of encouragement: “It’s not over. It’s not finished. It’s not ending. It’s only the beginning. When God is in it, all things are new.” The following clip from the concert demonstrates the power of their musical performance:
This last half of the concert also contains several medleys, “Hosanna/ Moving Forward/ Where Else Can I Go,” “You Have Me/ You Hold My World,” and “To Make You Feel My Love/ Name of Love” (on which Houghton’s teenage daughter, Mariah, is featured). “To Make” is a wonderful rendition of a little-known Bob Dylan song, followed by “Name of Love” whose sound really captures the church’s serenity. Israel and his daughter’s smooth voices blend together and transform this song about romantic love into one about spiritual love.
Jesus at the Center will surely make you smile and sing and feel thankful for the many talents of Israel & New Breed.
The Wardlaw Brothers (TWB), a new gospel group consisting of five brothers from Vidalia, Georgia, bring a new R&B sound to the gospel music scene. Their style is reminiscent of such notable vocal groups as Boyz II Men and Take 6, both named by TWB as important musical influences. But certainly the Wardlaws have their own original sound, one which can only be created by brothers who grew up singing together in a household with a shared sense of faith.
The brothers—Carl Anthony “Tony,” Martin Luther “Lute,” “Jamie” Cornelius, Carl III “Carlo,” and Rodney Allen “Baby Boy”—are the sons of Rev. Carl Waldlaw, Jr., who showed them the importance of the ministry and daily worship in their lives. They’ve chosen music worship as a way to express their belief in God, and now it’s time for us to recount their musical journey in the gospel music industry.
God’s Been There is full of TWB’s wonderful harmonies and spiritual stories that convey to listeners the depth of their Christian belief. For this album, the group hired Grammy Award–winning producer Cedric Thompson and Dove Award–winning producer Antonio Neal, who shared production duties with Martin Luther Wardlaw, the group’s lead vocalist.
The opening song, “Get Ready,” calls attention to the beginning of musical worship. With its a cappella jazz/gospel flavor, “Thank You” showcases TWB’s talents for vocal arrangements. The first single, “Somewhere Listening,” is a spiritual ballad that tells the story of a person preparing for the Lord’s return:
While “Somewhere Listening” reflects the urban contemporary side of TWB, songs such as “Right Now Lord” showcase their skillful presentation of the traditional gospel quartet style with its energetic handclapping and complex harmonies. “Welcome Home Soldier” samples President Obama’s voice announcing “Welcome home” to the troops, and is sung as a special tribute to military servicemen and women who have risked their lives for their country, including many of the brothers’ own family members.
The title track, “God’s Been There,” starts off with the brothers singing in unison, giving sweet depth to the lyrics “I know I’ll make it through, because in all of the things I’ve been through, God’s been there.” The gradual addition of more harmonic layers until the song’s conclusion provides us with an affirmation of God’s support and strength to face life’s difficult times.
God’s Been There provides diverse genre appeal for worship, and proves what TWB can do through music ministry. With their immense musical talents, they certainly get their message across.
On The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, blues musician Lurrie Bell pays tribute to gospel, the musical tradition in which he was raised. Bell says, “I had always wanted to make a record to show my gratitude for gospel music. I’m a bluesman but I’ve also played a lot of gospel songs for myself and for my family when I’m at home. The music gives me a sense of peace that I can’t find anywhere else.”
Although many soul and blues singers—Aretha Franklin, Etta James, B. B. King, and James Brown—first began their singing career in the Black church, Bell started off playing the blues, as taught to him by his dad, a blues harmonica player. While growing up, Bell met notable Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Eddie Taylor, Big Walter Horton, and Eddie Clearwater, who frequented Bell’s home to visit his father.
At the age of 10, Bell and his brother moved to Lisman, Alabama, to live with their maternal grandparents. While down South, Bell began playing guitar in the church at which his grandfather preached. “Once I began to play with the singers and learned about the gospel music I began to love it. I played acoustic guitar and was already very familiar with the blues so I would listen to the singers, and well, the music just came naturally to me,” he remembers. Since “the straight ahead blues” was prohibited in church services, Bell integrated elements of the blues into the gospel repertoire.
On the album, Bell is joined by a coterie of talented musicians, such as Billy Branch on harmonica in “Trouble in My Way,” Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on percussion, and New York blues and gospel musician Bill Sims, Jr. Additionally, singer, guitarist, and songwriter Joe Louis Walker adds his guitar voicings to “Peace in the Valley” and “It’s a Blessing.”
On the gospel standard “Swing Low,” Bell sings soulfully over guitar accompaniment and hand-claps, demonstrating the power of minimalism. Listeners will also enjoy Bell’s guitar playing and warm vocals on “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You.” Songs such as “It’s a Blessing” and “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” illustrate the skillful ease with which he marries blues and gospel music. Bell pays tribute to Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music, by covering his compositions “Search Me Lord” and “Peace in the Valley,” and also gives his rendition of gospel songs by the notable bluesmen Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
The title track, “The Devil Ain’t Got No Music,” was written by Bell and his longtime friend and producer Matthew Skoller. Interestingly, Skoller’s inspiration for the song came from a quote by Mavis Staples, lead singer of The Staple Singers. When asked if the blues is really the Devil’s music, Staples answered, “Come on, the Devil ain’t got no music. All music is the Lord’s.” Mavis’s quote distills Bell’s own attempt to blend Black secular and sacred music genres. Following is a live performance of the song at the recent Chicago Blues Fest in June 2012:
Lurrie Bell demonstrates what blues and gospel have in common: both musical styles give emotional support to those seeking to overcome life’s difficulties. The Devil Ain’t Got No Music showcases this seasoned musician’s ability to transcend genres and to give personal voice to Black traditional music.
I’ll bless the Lord at all, all times
And His praises shall be in my, in my mouth continuously
With my hands, I’ll lift Him
With my feet, I’ll bless Him
With my voice, I’ll praise Him
With everything in my, I’ll thank Him
Thank you Lord for all He’s done for me
Referring to well-known parts of Psalm 34 from the Bible (above), Vincent Tharpe and Kenosis (VTK) put worship messages in the contemporary gospel song “Thank You Lord,” the single from their debut album, Live in Memphis. The high-energy song, which has earned many positive reviews for this new gospel group, features beats that you can’t help but clapping hands and dancing along with:
VTK was formed from the Craigmont High School Gospel Choir in Memphis, where Vincent Tharpe served as choir director. In January 2009 the group signed to One Voice Management, which provided VTK with opportunities to bring their musical worship to a wider audience. Since then, they have performed at the 2009 Pre-Dove Awards Showcase in Nashville, during the 2012 Stellar Award weekend at the Yes Lord Radio anniversary party, and on BET’s Bobby Jones Gospel program. They have also been featured on the same stage with well-known gospel musicians such as Trinitee 5:7, Bishop Leonard Scott, Kierra Sheard, Kurt Carr and the Kurt Carr Singers, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and many more.
On the opening track of Live in Memphis, “Faith” tells us that having faith gives us the power to make it through the hard times in life. “Jesus the Great” is a praise and worship song that flows with beautiful melodies. Slower worship songs like “Teach Me,” “You Are God” and “He Will” showcase the vocal talents of the group, as their harmonies move us to a place of calm and deep worship. Over rhythmic finger-snapping, Tharpe and the choir smoothly sing “Close to You” as if they are having a close conversation with Jesus in the same room. “Mighty God” and “Be Alright” are dancing worship tunes with funky beats, while “He Keeps Blessing” fuses very fast rhythms and crisp vocals with a traditional gospel music flavor.
Live in Memphis provides a variety of music for worship, and with their powerful vocal abilities Vincent Tharpe and Kenosis should have many opportunities in the future to reach new audiences.
Anita Wilson has performed as a backing singer behind many notable gospel musicians including Marvin Sapp, Hezekiah Walker, and Vanessa Bell Armstrong. But perhaps her most well-known effort was “Happy Being Me,” a track on Donald Lawrence’s hit album The Law of Confession Part 1 (2009) that really showcased her voice. Lawrence claims that it’s the tone of Wilson’s voice that attracts people and is perfect for musical worship.
Growing up in East St. Louis, Illinois, as the daughter of a pastor, Wilson was influenced by great gospel musicians such as Vanessa Bell Armstrong, the Winans family, and the Clark Sisters in addition to secular artists such as Brandy, Aretha Franklin, and Lalah Hathaway. It should come as no surprise, then, that both Wilson and her producer for this album, Rick Robinson, agreed to attempt to break the mold of what constitutes “normal” worship songs in the church setting and make this an album filled with songs with the flavor of soul music. By doing so, Wilson seeks a “new normal” where her music becomes “creative enough and unique enough to be able to go into different settings.” “It may not be in church settings, but it carries the message of Christ and the message of God and it carries His love,” Wilson says in an interview. Therefore, as she explains, the title for her first solo project, Worship Soul, is “a marriage of the two sides” of Anita Wilson—worshiper and soul singer—reflecting her desire to create worship through soul music.
Wilson sings, “I can’t find the words to describe you/ It will take a million years to explain the way I feel,” in the first single from this album, “Speechless,” which is a perfect description of her honest appreciation towards the Lord. Following is the official music video:
Accompanied by an acoustic guitar, “Shower the People” is a spiritual cover of the James Taylor song, and Wilson treats listeners to a similar vibe with her performance of “Happy Being Me.” She brings James Cleveland’s “Jesus Will” to life with more beats and involves the congregation as they praise the Lord together. “It’s Done” and “All About You” are songs which the congregation surely can’t resist clapping hands and dancing along with the praising. Ballads such as “Perfect Love Song” and “More of You” showcase Wilson’s warm and deep tone well, while songs like “He Shows Out” and “Keep On Praising,” backed by a powerful horn section, teach us to believe that the Lord takes care of us.
Worship Soul is indeed a good song collection for souls which desire perfect music for worship.
Formed at Oakwood College in Alabama in 1980, Take 6 has stood at the forefront of mainstream a cappella quartets for many years, attracting both national and international fans. Yet this new album proves that they still have more room to grow as a gospel-jazz performing group. The current members are Alvin Chea, Joey Kibble, Mark Kibble, Claude V. McKnight III, David Thomas and Khristian Dentley, who recently joined the group after the departure of Cedric Dent, a long-time member and co-producer. Fortunately, the change in membership throughout the group’s history has never affected its signature harmonies or gospel/jazz fusion style.
One is filled with new arrangements of traditional spirituals and gospel standards, and members give generously of their musical talents. David Thomas explains in an interview that the group intended to produce this new album in a similar manner to their first CD, which consisted of old spirituals performed with Take 6 style, and they certainly succeed. One begins with “Down Here I’ve Done My Best,” a great opening number with smooth, yet rhythmical vocals. The transition between “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “In My Heart” is likewise very smooth with a similar rhythmic structure, creating a mini medley. Bass singer Alvin Chea gives a deep, warm solo performance on “Farther Along.”
The title track “One” summarizes their philosophy towards life, riding on jazzy harmonies. David Thomas explains the concept of ONE: “Basically, there are a lot of things in this world that take many different things and many different ingredients to make something work. But, as far as salvation is concerned, it only took one Jesus. … [Take 6] are six different guys, six different opinions, but when you put us all together, it comes out as one. And that’s really because of ‘The One.’” Their belief is also expressed in the song’s lyrics:
It only took one cross with three nails
Three days to satisfy the ransom for my soul
The music video for the title track is also a special “one” with appearances by Stevie Wonder and Brian McKnight, representing “one” big family within the circle of music. Wonder also contributes vocally on “Can’t Imagine Love Without You,” an original composition featured on his album A Time to Love (2005). Wonder’s vocals and harmonica flow comfortably among Take 6’s well-established harmonic background.
Following is the official music video for “One”:
Throughout the album, Take 6’s vocal skills keep surprising us with their jazzy interpretations of spirituals and gospel songs. They will continue representing a cappella music, and their efforts will no doubt be appreciated by legions of listeners. Surely “it only takes [this] one” album for anybody to become a big fan of Take 6!
Discovered on January 21, 2003 by the notable contemporary gospel composer/producer/singer J. Moss and PAJAM production, Detroit natives Evin Martin, Torrence Greene and Jor’el Quinn named their urban gospel trio 21:03. Success immediately followed when their debut received a Stellar Award for Best Rap/Hip Hop CD (2006) and “Cover Me” from their sophomore album Total Attention (2008) received a Grammy nomination for Best Gospel Song. After a three year hiatus, the group has returned with their third album Evolved: From Boys To Men. Featuring their interpretations of sacred messages, the album has the same R&B/hip hop flavor found in the group’s previous works, but this time with deeper testimonies.
21:03 has now been together as a group for nearly 10 years, and certainly they’ve also gone through life’s ups and downs together. This is especially reflected in the album’s first single “Still Here,” composed by Evin Martin after he lost both of his parents within a very short span of time. Though Martin certainly went through rough times, he was able to rediscover his faith because of the support of other members, producers, and notably the preaching of Bishop Andrew Merritt of Straight Gate International Church. In the following video Martin explains, “Bishop Andrew Merritt was preaching about The Blood, and said the same power that conquered the grave lives on the inside of me, so I don’t have to fear death because the blood already covers that. I’m still here because the blood still has its power.” This emotional performance also shows us their growth “from boys to men” with an old school gospel groove:
While 21:03 prove their new mutuality through this album, they don’t neglect their responsibility to teach/bring the messages from the Bible to the younger generation. The musical diversity of Evolved is presented in the catchy tune “Hear Your Voice” into which the members express their hope to hear God’s voice, which is sometimes difficult due to many distractions by messages from Facebook and Twitter. The second single “Incredible,” with the flavor of producer J. Moss’s strong grooves and harmonies, was a Top 20 song on gospel radio in 2011. These songs are great examples of gospel music for the sake of the conveyance of sacred messages in contemporary ways. The inclusion of the R&B ballad “Loving You (The Wedding Song)” also shows a different aspect of the group and should attract a broader audience.
This trio has learned through their life experiences, and they are meant to tell their stories and bring the spiritual message to the listeners through their performances. Evolved is a great testimony from these young singers, who have promised to continue guiding new generations to the spiritual evolution.
Indeed, Twenty is a great way to celebrate Boyz II Men’s 20th anniversary of their phenomenal music career. During the past few years, this talented vocal group has recorded several cover albums such as Throwback (2004), Motown: A Journey Though Hitsville, USA (2007), and Love (2009), demonstrating their beautiful interpretations of beloved songs from various music genres. But surely many of their fans have been waiting for another original album, and Boyz II Men has crafted the perfect response to fan’s expectations.
On Twenty, the group presents 12 new songs plus 9 reinterpretations of Boyz II Men classics such as “Motownphilly,” “End of the Road,” and “I’ll Make Love to You,” which show the group’s growth over 20 years. It was unfortunate that the bass, Michael McCary, couldn’t join this project (the current group includes Wanya Morris, Shawn Stockman and Nathan Morris), but the album does not suffer; in fact, the reinterpretations are better than ever.
As for new songs, the first single “One Up For Love” urges us to think about what we can do to make the world better. Their second single, “More Than You’ll Ever Know,” features Charlie Wilson, a R&B singer, songwriter, and the former lead vocalist for the Gap Band. As you can hear in the following video, Boyz II Men’s and Wilson’s talents blend well, especially in the second verse where Wilson takes a solo with the group’s signature harmony, while the adlibs between Wanya and Wilson at the conclusion of the song are amazing. These vocalizations instantly classify this brand new song as one of the group’s masterpieces.
With support from producers such as Teddy Riley, Tim & Bob, and Babyface, Boyz II Men has come back indeed. It’s time for us to be completely absorbed by their sweet harmonies again.
McKnight’s eleventh album, Just Me, a set of 2 CDs, might be a little controversial because of the balance between new and old songs. Disc 1 contains a rather short collection of 10 new tracks including “Fall 5.0,” the first single, which represents this new project well:
Although many of the new songs might not immediately capture the listeners and meet his fans’ expectations, Brian McKnight’s sweet voice remains the same. For example, tracks like “One Mo Time” show off his great vocal technique without doubt, while “Without You” and “End and Beginning with You” represent the kind of sweet and melodic love songs that McKnight is known for. “Careless Whisper,” a remake of George Michael’s 1984 hit, is performed with McKnight’s jazz interpretation.
Disc 2 is a great recording of his live concert performance at the Avalon in Los Angeles in February 2011, which definitely upstages Disc 1. This nearly two-hour acoustic concert, accompanied by piano and guitar, features a “greatest hits collection” of his masterpieces such as “Only One for Me,” “Crazy Love,” “Anytime,” and “Back At One.” McKnight tells biographical stories between song intervals, and his general playfulness―inserting gospel songs, a classic piano “Sonata,” and covers of beloved songs such as Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”―amuses the audience.
McKnight performs several of his hits with his sons, Brian Jr. and Niko. It is amazing to hear these three talents singing together, and their performance of “The Rest of My Life” will give listeners goose bumps for sure. This is a perfect way for McKnight to proudly introduce his talented sons as performers and co-writers.
As McKnight sings in “Just Me” (“This is me, I write the songs / I try to be right more than I’m wrong / I may not be all that you hoped I would be / But I am just me”), this project is a very honest creation. His new album might have a fallback, including a performance of songs he wrote almost a decade ago, but this also demonstrates the secret of his long career. Surely, McKnight will continue to delight fans by saying, “this is Just Me.”
Indianapolis label Tyscot Records recently released My Songbook, a collection of songs composed by VaShawn Mitchell that celebrates his illustrious career (he just received 10 Stellar Award nominations for his 2010 album Triumphant). Mitchell, having worked with church music since he was barely a teenager in Chicago, has become a nationally recognized gospel singer and songwriter. He has composed songs for many notable gospel singers including Smokie Norful, Bishop Paul Morton, and Bishop Larry D. Trotter. This collection includes 14 songs from his previous albums such as Believe in Your Dreams (2005) and Promises (2007). Also added to this special compilation are songs such as “Only a Test,” which has been sung in church worship services nationwide, as well as the unreleased track “God Cares For You” and a new remix of “Don’t Last.”
The companion DVD offers a 70 minute live performance of Mitchell and his band at Chicago’s Apollo Theater in 2007. Featuring songs from his album Promises, the concert footage illustrates Mitchell’s singing talents and the power of his music. Mitchell and his band create a great musical worship experience in the space, performing encouragement songs with grooves such as “Crazy Praise,” “For My Good,” “Don’t Last,” and “Able,” in addition to the soothing ballads “Promises” and “I Worship You,” plus “Favor (Ain’t Fair)” which is available only on the DVD.
Following is the 2007 performance of “For My Good” (courtesy of Tyscot Records):
Guest singers on this project are Angie Spivey, Kim Burrell, and Bishop Larry D. Trotter, who contribute their interpretations of Mitchell’s compositions and pay their respects to his music. Mitchell’s compositions show both traditional and contemporary gospel flavors, and they are made for the worship and encouragement of congregations and listeners. The songs gathered for this compilation create a total praise experience and reconfirm Mitchell’s songwriting gift.
A wonderful gospel singer, songwriter, and producer, Donald Lawrence has come back to us with another lesson from the Bible via his new album YRM (Your Righteous Mind). Every song in this album provides encouragement and will make you smile, cry, and give thanks for the inspirational messages from Heaven. Lawrence writes, “Spiritually, this CD was meant to push you forward” by showing the solutions to the troubled mind. Lawrence’s talent to convey Christian beliefs in his lyrics excels without a doubt.
Songs such as the first single, “YRM (Your Righteous Mind)” featuring Dorinda Clark-Cole, and “The ‘I AM’ Factor” cheer us up and teach us how to be true to ourselves. Ballads such as “Second Wind,” “Not Making Sense, Making Faith” and “II Chronicles” take us to a deep worship experience. Another pioneering gospel artist, Israel Houghton, shares solos with Lawrence on “We Agree,” a beautiful tune with a strong message: “Anything can happen when we agree.”
Lawrence also writes, “Musically, this CD was meant to take you back to the ‘80s & ‘90s, a time of live musicians and live organic vocals.” Certainly his remake of Chaka Khan’s 1985 hit “Through the Fire,” reborn as a sincere love song to the Lord, will amaze listeners by showing how genre boundaries can be transcended. Walter L. Hawkins’ “When the Battle is Over” is reintroduced by the Co.’s powerful vocalization. Indeed, Lawrence is an ingenious musician who can put secular musical forms to use for his preaching, combining them with gospel music’s characteristics.
Following is the music video for “Spiritual” ((c) 2011 Verity Gospel Music Group):
Lawrence states, “I want to continue to teach, through song, spiritual principles and laws based on scriptures.” The repeated message of this album is “You’re not a natural being having a spiritual experience―you’re a spiritual being living in a natural experience” as sung in the second single, “Spiritual.” Again, Donald Lawrence has accomplished his mission, demonstrating the true purpose of gospel music.
Keke Wyatt is back, as a strong singer and even stronger woman on her new album Unbelievable! Wyatt, who became famous as a teenager singing R&B duets with Avant, more recently experienced personal struggles with domestic violence. This new album signals a fresh start, now that she has overcome the unhappiness. “Experience is a good teacher,” she sings in “Love Under New Management,” which is a cover of Miki Howard’s 1989 hit. This message speaks of Wyatt’s new determination as a singer―she honestly expresses her feelings for listeners who have waited anxiously for her come-back.
Wyatt’s powerful vocals propel her new motto towards life. “Enough,” for example, pushes troubled women who have struggled with domestic issues, telling them “Don’t be blinded by love/ Cause enough is enough/ Heard a million stories/ Enough is enough/ You got to let him go/ There is no reason to love/ Can’t let him take control.” This song is convincing because it draws from personal experience, and her strong voice makes listeners believe that they will be able to stand up and overcome the difficult times. “Mirror” features two other talented vocalists, Kelly Price and Tweet, narrating a story of brokenhearted women, while Wyatt again represents women with struggles, urging them to speak up.
Wyatt covers several other hit songs, including Cherelle and Alexander O’Neal’s “Saturday Love,” featuring Ruben Studdard. Her version of Eric Clapton’s moving tune, “Tears in Heaven,” is performed with her smooth vocalization. Though it is a very sad song, she somehow manages to gives us hope.
Wyatt closes the album with an a cappella version of the well-known gospel song “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” which expresses her spirituality and signals a return to her church music roots. She says, “I don’t know why God chose me, why He made me Keke Wyatt. I really don’t know why. But I gotta give Him thanks. Because I am the only Keke Wyatt.” The spiritual aspects of the song make a fitting conclusion to her come-back album. I am sure that music will provide Wyatt with many more opportunities for honest self-expression, and her strong voice will never wither away.
A boy who got his start in a kids’ talent show has grown up to be a great musician with infinite creativity. Many reviewers have claimed that in Rahsaan Patterson’s performances they can hear the voices of great musicians such as Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson, and I certainly agree with them. But Patterson says, “you know that influence and inspiration come from any and everything. … I can’t do what they do. I do what I do, influenced by them and what they taught me. … I don’t get bothered by those comparisons at all because they taught me what I do.” Patterson’s Bleuphoria proves his belief in himself, and the music that flows from this album stimulates our senses.
The first single, “Easier Said Than Done,” brings funky and electric grooves along with Patterson’s beautiful vocalization. “Mountain Top” is a pleasant surprise with a sacred vibe, featuring Tata Bega, Andrae Crouch and his choir. His smooth falsettos nicely fill our ears in the ballads “Miss You” and “Goodbye,” letting us reminisce about the memories of beloved ones. Patterson wrote these songs by himself in his room, at first afraid but believing in “what he does.” His long-time friends and producers, Keith Crouch and Jamey Jaz, lent support as did other fellow musicians, including Lalah Hathaway, who contributes to the second single “6AM. ” Every song resonates with special meanings.
Patterson’s choice of Bleuphoria as a title for this album shows his opinion that “blue” goes with love, referencing not to the coldness of that color but “the depth of it.” “Like the sea and the sky—it appears blue but the deeper you go the darker it gets. So like the deeper you get into someone, sometimes the darker it gets in terms of the levels of love that exist,” Patterson explains. He adds, “Euphoria that comes from love, the feelings and the joy and the infinite possibilities.” Yes, Patterson will touch us with the color of Bleuphoria. Every song in this album exhibits his accumulated experiences and his gift. It’s as though he can’t wait to let his creativity flow.
With great achievements such as a Grammy nomination, Stellar and Gospel Music Workshop of American Excellence Awards, and a 2008 BET Best Gospel Artist nomination, Deitrick Haddon has produced many crossover hits. Haddon once said, “our music has to reach beyond our religious beliefs to connect on a greater level. I wanted to speak to everybody about how we all need each other. … I want to be a pied piper leading the people to a new era of gospel possibilities.” His new album, Church on the Moon, shows his belief in his musical style, and it certainly brings new sounds for prayers.
The album is set in the year 3000 when people have lost faith in God, as Haddon explains in the Intro. Haddon creates a space (church) for worship filled with original ideas and electronic sounds, demonstrated in the opening track, “Show Stopper.” Although his conceptualization of contemporary worship music is quite different from most gospel music, Haddon makes it clear that his message remains the same: “Jesus, You are the star of the show.”
Haddon’s lyrics convey his honest feelings, no matter what musical styles he chooses. “Power,” with the club-like atmosphere and hip hop influences, calls to the congregation, “Stand up if you got that Holy Ghost’s power.” “Reppin’ the Kingdom” features other contemporary gospel artists—including J. Moss, Canton Jones, and Tye Tribbet—each contributing their unique performances. Songs like “Gravity” are based on the conception of the universe he chose for this album, providing a realistic narrative of a man who is stuck on the moon but decides not to go back to the earth because of the peace he has found.
The following video reveals his vision for the album, featuring excerpts from the tracks “Power,” “Touch Me,” “Well Done,” and “Church on the Moon.”
The soulful “Touch Me” has a distinctive Motown groove (the video appears to be a riff on the Blues Brothers restaurant scene that featured Aretha Franklin). Haddon also includes songs which explore more familiar contemporary territory, such as “Mighty God,” and the firstsingle from the album, “Well Done,” where he sings: “Just wanna make it to heaven / I just wanna make it in / I just wanna cross that river / I wanna be free from sin / I just want my name written / Written in the lambs Book of Life / When this life is over / I just wanna have eternal life / O wanna hear Him say / Well Done.”
Through his free imagination, Haddon has attempted to make music that connects people beyond the typical church communities, while never forgetting his mission to teach messages from the Bible. With Church on the Moon, he has once again succeeded at crossing over the boundaries of multiple genres.
Brandon O. Bailey’s debut album, Memphis Grooves, offers a pleasant surprise and demonstrates the artist’s significant talent for the blues. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, this young harmonica master creates every sound with his mouth, hands and feet. His astonishing skills—which involve simultaneously playing his harmonica while beat-boxing and producing rhythms with his stomping foot, shaker, and looping pedal—entertain the listener throughout the album.
Bailey first drew people’s attentions when he participated in the 2009 Orpheum Star Search competition in Memphis at the age of 16. He won the competition with his performance of “Whammer Jammer,” which is introduced as one of masterpieces on this album:
Although still a teenager, Bailey has already performed at places such as B.B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis and the Jefferson Awards in Washington D. C.
Bailey’s greatest influence is Son of Dave, the famous creator of the postmodern harp-boxing style, which employs blues riffs intertwined with beat-box rhythms. Producer Adam Gussow states in his liner notes, “Brandon is equal parts historian and innovator.” He reflects the traditional blues forms in the depth of his harmonica sounds, while at the same time adds new flavors. For example, “Nine Below” and “Bye Bye Bird” are blues classics from Sonny Boy Williamson’s repertoire which Bailey successfully transforms into a modern blues idiom.
The varieties of songs on Memphis Grooves make it difficult to categorize the entire album as blues. But it may be Bailey’s intention to reveal the continuity of African American musical elements by ignoring the boundaries imposed by a single genre. His attempts to incorporate signature pieces by African American musicians from different genres interestingly function as a means to create a unique flow. Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” with Bailey’s smooth and deep vocals lets us feel the rural atmosphere of a blues groove. His harp-boxing interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” makes this famous song original again. Likewise, Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” are not merely covers of these famous songs, but showcase Bailey’s ability to reinterpret and transform them into his own style of blues.
Brandon O. Bailey is a great presenter of the modern blues harp, and Memphis Grooves is layered with his groundbreaking ideas. It is truly an evolution of the blues by a teen musical master whose future will no doubt be an exciting one full of interesting productions.
The Rance Allen Group, a Detroit-based gospel trio consisting of brothers Rance, Tom and Steve Allen, is one of the greatest gospel groups of all time. They became famous in the 1960s and ‘70s for incorporating rock and soul into African American sacred music, which led to huge crossover success. Since then, this traditionally trained group has remained at the forefront of contemporary gospel music, adding an extra dimension to the genre as they lead listeners through various songs that praise God.
Following up on their best-selling 2004 project TheLive Experience, the Rance Allen Group just released The Live Experience II (available on CD as well as DVD). Recorded in July 2010 at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, the performance was a celebration of group’s 40th anniversary.
Rance Allen’s deep, colorful, and powerful voice stirs up the audience’s excitement throughout the concert. Songs like “Let the Music Get Down in Your Soul” and “Feel Like Going On” make listeners want to dance, while the rocking “Livin’ for Jesus” is a powerful expression of worship. The group’s performances of ballads such as “Holy One” and “Angel” are also amazing examples of sacred-secular fusions in gospel music.
The group collaborates with several gospel superstars during the concert. “I need you /You need me / Let’s work together in unity,” the group sings in “United We Stand,” featuring Paul Porter, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Shirley Caesar, and Chris Byrd. Their performance of this song, I believe, represents the ideal community in world peace, and each vocal moves our hearts with passion and make us hope that we will be able to create such peaceful unity. Paul Porter, lead singer for the Christianiares, also gives an astonishing performance with Rance Allen in “You That I Trust”:
Through this live experience, the Rance Allen Group has presented its distinguished technique of ministry once more, adding another great example of the power of Black gospel music.