Pete Malinverni with the Nelsen Middle School Concert Chorus at Carco Theatre

For an Italian-American jazz pianist, Pete Malinverni’s moonlight job (or, more precisely, Sunday morning job) is unusual. He directs the choir at the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, whose congregation is approximately 90 percent African-American. Malinverni’s association with this church led directly to one of the freshest, most exhilarating recordings of 2006. Joyful! is scheduled for mid-year release on the ArtistShare label. It documents a concert by the Devoe Street Baptist Church Choir and a jazz ensemble performing Malinverni’s ambitious new gospel/jazz suite based on the Psalms of David. The ArtistShare package will contain both a CD and a DVD.

B. Robert Johnson

Pete Malinverni

In a startling stroke of good fortune for the Pacific Northwest music scene, on May 13, 2006, Joyful! had its West Coast premiere at the Carco Theatre in Renton, WA. It was one of the suite’s first public performances anywhere, in a Seattle suburb seemingly far removed from (but, it turns out, spiritually aligned with) Devoe Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Like so many jazz projects, the concert came together because of a friendship. When Malinverni taught in a master’s program at New York University several years ago, one of his “very best students” was Brian Hoskins, who now conducts the Nelsen Middle School Concert Chorus in Renton, WA. Hoskins’ group, 50-plus voices strong, has for six years been a consistent prizewinner at Northwestern choral festivals and contests. The Renton performance featured, in addition to the chorus, Malinverni on piano, and one of the Northwest’s strongest rhythm sections, Chuck Deardorf and Mark Ivester on bass and drums, respectively. Also present was Malinverni’s wife, Jody Sandhaus, whose luminous, penetrating soprano voice provides some of the most arresting moments on the ArtistShare recording of Joyful!.

The evening opened with just the trio, Malinverni bent low to the keyboard, searching alone through random thoughts that became, when the bass and drums kicked in, his own composition, “Good Question.” (It is an energetic musical response to Cole Porter’s interrogative, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”) Jody Sandhaus then came out and sang three songs with the trio. She is not famous but deserves to be. She possesses an extraordinary vocal instrument and impeccable diction and phrasing, but she is not limited by her voice’s beauty. She can turn it darkly expressive on a moment’s notice. Sandhaus sang a definitive “Embraceable You,” a hip, dry version of Bob Dorough’s “Small Day Tomorrow,” and a gliding, elegant “Get Out Of Town.” One of Malinverni’s pianistic strengths is his taste and sensitivity as an accompanist.

Then 51 kids filed onto the stage and lifted off into “Make A Joyful Noise.” With the kids swaying and clapping, Brian Hoskins waving the audience into standing and clapping and Malinverni’s trio driving hard, the event became a dizzying adrenalin rush. The rush kicked up a level when 12-year-old sixth grader Jordon Bolden came down front for his first solo, a pint-sized package with super-sized charisma and confidence, not to mention pipes. The chorus consists of middle schoolers, grades six through eight, from an ethnically diverse area of greater Seattle, so it presents not only a rich mix of colors and features but also a variety of sizes, from six-foot-tall girls to very small boys. One of the smallest was Bolden, and every time he rolled his eyes heavenward and belted it out, the audience collectively lost it.

The next number, “O Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me And Known Me,” quieted things down and sobered everyone up. Then “Let The Earth Shake” got the theater stomping and clapping again. Both pieces offered compelling, celebratory piano solos by Malinverni. His suite is a journey containing relentless funk grooves and meditative moments and majestic sweeps. Both on the ArtistShare album and at the Carco Theatre, it was striking to hear how natural 21st century jazz and vintage gospel sound together. (Malinverni describes them as “two long lost sibling musical forms, which had been separated at birth.”) His Joyful! reunites the siblings, and when his trio dug in and burned, it sent sympathetic waves of energy through the chorus. And the power of those massed voices provided a unique context for jazz improvisation. As for rhythm, it was not about contrast, but about the trio and the chorus sharing a deep, common groove and swinging like a big block party.

Two of the most affecting pieces were “Let The Sea Roar” and “Whither Shall I Run?” both featuring Jody Sandhaus. Just as on the Joyful! CD, her entrance on the former was dramatic, her wordless vocal like the ascent of weightless spirit. The latter included a hypnotic bass ostinato by Chuck Deardorf and the chorus whispered like a light wind beneath Sandhaus. Because the families of the young singers were so well represented in the audience, there were many more babes in arms than are usually found in a jazz crowd. Not infrequently, the pure improvisations of their cries could be heard during the chorus’ softer passages.

At the beginning of the evening, in his introductory remarks, Pete Malinverni had told the audience, “Let yourself go. Be joyful.” When that chorus got going, consuming the Carco Theatre with its 51 voices, laying down nasty funk and wailing sweet hallelujahs, it was impossible not to be.

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