The Richard Smallwood Singers
1992: Sparrow SPD 1283
Im not a big fan of Gospel music (recordings or as-written), being essentially agnostic and skeptical of religions stamp on psyches, but Im not averse to it quite on the contrary, Im 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 dont share the sentiment personally.
The Richard Smallwood Singers performance on Handels MessiahA 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 groups 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 overalllordy, LORDY, gimme MORE! These voices are primed, and each gets a song for a solo, but its 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 werent 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 theyre real, theyre waaaaay over-produced (the real stuff is evident on certain other tracks, especially the ending section of Come Unto Me and What Hes Done for Me). The melodramatic I Wont Be Troubled, featuring Dennis Sawyerss range-defying and amazing vocal, shows the synthesizer/overproduction stamp most obviously, yet theres so much care poured into it that its unfair to simply criticize it dismissively. (Oops, I forgot about the saccharine synth-ridden prologue to Twill Be Sweet. Qualify that most obviously note, please.)
As for standout tracks, the appropriation of Bachs Jesu, Joy of Mans Desiring makes for the weakest one here because its an uneven hijacking without definite results let alone benefits. Its 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 dont resonate as the singers do, its not loud enough for such rejoicing. What I was hoping to find/hear on this album is probably best embodied on What Hes Done for Me, which climbs into radiant vocal clusters before you notice youre floating a little off the floor in delight (and that youve 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 tracks ambiguous and troubled opening.
Comments © 2007 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.