Jazz musicians, even agnostic ones, have a soft spot for gospel. It's part of the foundation of American music, an essential language like the blues. That doesn't mean they treat gospel tunes reverently or gingerly. From Louis Armstrong on down, jazz musicians have seized on hymns and spirituals as a starting point for improvisation. Now, two new records showcase contrasting approaches that can be spun out of old-time religious tunes.
Charles Mingus' approach to gospel has inspired generations of jazz musicians, including Don Byron. Byron and his New Gospel Quintet chase gospel's extroverted side, those toe-tapping jubilee-style rave-ups, on Love, Peace, and Soul. Many of their arrangements open with a vocal chorus, followed by solo turns that travel far from what's printed in the hymnbook. Pianist Xavier Davis nudges gospel's simple harmonies into a modern jazz context.
The solos on Byron's new work are certainly high spirited — almost Saturday-night boisterous. Sometimes, though, we turn to gospel for calm reflection, and this is where Hank Jones and Charlie Haden shine.
The second gospel collaboration between Jones and Haden, Come Sunday, was recorded a few months before Jones died in 2010. It is transfixingly effortless music — a conversation between masters, built around these solid, reassuring melodies they've heard (and likely played) for decades.
Sometimes jazz improvisation has a muscle-flexing, look-what-I-can do aspect. Not this music. Jones and Haden are long past the point of trying to impress anybody. As they shut out the chatter of the modern world, the two go searching for a higher truth, a moment's peace. In these sturdy old songs of faith, they find it.