The Richard Smallwood Singers

1992: Sparrow SPD 1283

  1. Great Is the Lord (Psalm 48)
  2. What He’s Done for Me
  3. His Mercy Endureth Forever (Psalm 118)
  4. The Light
  5. Jesus, Lover of My Soul (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring)
  6. Wonderful Counselor
  7. Great Is Thy Faithfulness
  8. I Won’t Be Troubled
  9. Come Unto Me
  10. T’will Be Sweet

I’m not a big fan of Gospel music (recordings or as-written), being essentially agnostic and skeptical of religion’s stamp on psyches, but I’m not averse to it…quite on the contrary, I’m always eager to go for a rapturous swim in the ebullient waters of truly awesome Gospel recordings. Specifically small-choir ensembles such as this one (and the Andrews Gospel Singers, whose album Open Your Heart was a mainstay of my childhood) hold delights rich in both musical performance and fervent passion which I completely appreciate even if I don’t share the sentiment personally.

The Richard Smallwood Singers’ performance on Handel’s Messiah—A Soulful Celebration, the eventually kick-ass “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion,” had lingered in my mind for many years before I decided to spring for an album of their own. The latter half of that track is meaty and juicy and just DAMNED fine, especially in its closing (an increasingly supreme pattern on the lyric “rejoice / rejoice / rejoice / DAUGHTER! / rejoice”); most importantly in this case it presented the group’s voices in excellent massed form, which is what I hoped to find on this roughly contemporaneous album.

No fear!! There are weak moments here, but overall—lordy, LORDY, gimme MORE! These voices are primed, and each gets a song for a solo, but it’s the confluence of their might and beauty that shines spectacularly as the voices sympathize into one conduit that just floors me. The occasional quirky melodic/harmonic twists of the arrangements keep things not so much engaging as nearly arresting (if the choral arrays weren’t already, on their own).

Really the only detraction here, aside from the sentiment/lyrics depending on your disinclination toward Gospel themes, is probably the occasional too-studio-clean sound. Trombone, saxophone, and trumpet players are credited in the CD booklet, but on the opening track (“Great Is the Lord”) my ear hears synthesizer-generated brass sounds…if they’re “real,” they’re waaaaay over-produced (the real stuff is evident on certain other tracks, especially the ending section of “Come Unto Me” and “What He’s Done for Me”). The melodramatic “I Won’t Be Troubled,” featuring Dennis Sawyers’s range-defying and amazing vocal, shows the synthesizer/overproduction stamp most obviously, yet there’s so much care poured into it that it’s unfair to simply criticize it dismissively. (Oops, I forgot about the saccharine synth-ridden prologue to “T’will Be Sweet.” Qualify that “most obviously” note, please.)

As for standout tracks, the appropriation of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” makes for the weakest one here because it’s an uneven hijacking without definite results let alone benefits. It’s amply balanced by so many other tracks that it seems petty of me to even single it out.

p.s. The louder this is played, the better; if your own lungs don’t resonate as the singers’ do, it’s not loud enough for such rejoicing. What I was hoping to find/hear on this album is probably best embodied on “What He’s Done for Me,” which climbs into radiant vocal clusters before you notice you’re floating a little off the floor in delight (and that you’ve been dancing with increasing abandon since just after the midpoint of the track). “Wonderful Counselor” packs some bumptious power too. And “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” unfurls into overblown, histrionic splendor but also delivers an unexpectedly deft and coolly deep ending which is best heard at some volume so you can appreciate the contrast and hear the nuances of love Smallwood coaxes out of every note and chord, whether passionately hammering the keys at the thrilling climax or stroking the bittersweet sound out from between them at the moodily reflective (and utterly gorgeous) closing which is a profound followup to the track’s ambiguous and troubled opening.