Trumpet virtuoso Kevin Louis has released a CD with FNMUSICWEB that is adventurous, thought-provoking and hilarious all at once. The album goes after traditional notions of religion without attacking religion; it is open-minded and open-hearted towards those who see religion in more traditional ways. And he gets world class musicians to come clean on their own spirituality without ever sacrificing the musicianship that marks this intriguing CD.
The album was recorded in 2011 and released on CD but the label never got behind this brilliant recording nor garnered any exposure for it. Farnell Newton was so taken with the music that he knew that this album could not be allowed to simply disappear. With the consent of Vallen Music, Farnell Newton is re-releasing the album in a digital format at www.fnmusicweb.com.
The album’s introduction is a mock dialog between Kevin and someone who refuses to acknowledge that Kevin sees music as his religion. He is equally at home celebrating spiritual music with Christians, Rastafarians, Jews, or African traditionalists. He is called "confused" and "undecided," both of which he refutes. He and his fellow musicians then break into comparisons of religions to basketballs teams. “Everybody has different plays to run.” They conclude the introduction by intoning en masse “That’s all-l-l-l-l right with me!”
Antwan Barrett then opens the music with an electric bass solo introduction of “Amazing Grace.” This is not the first time that a bass solo has carried that particular song. Chris Squire of Yes added that to his solo repertoire during that band’s concerts beginning in the early 1980’s. However, Squire did it for progressive rock affectation. Barrett makes it something emotional and spiritual. It is harmonic and historic. Then the band picks it up with Robert Glasper’s bent notes opening a door that Kevin Louis steps through like Gabriel stepping out of the gates of heaven to earth below.
All the while, Koko Jones (percussion) and Jason Brown (drums) maintain a certain earthy tie in the rhythms. Glasper’s keyboard carries the theme from Gospel to avant-jazz in ways that only Robert Glasper can. Kevin resumes the more traditional approach in contrast to Glasper’s esotericism.
This is arranger/trumpeter Kevin Louis’ whole point, to see a traditional religious approach that is supplemented but not supplanted by new modes of expression of those same traditional thoughts and ideas. The earthiness of the percussion, the romanticism of the bass, the freedom of expression and exploration of the keyboards can all be seen as extensions of the traditional line. The traditional is not abandoned; it is expanded. This is not only good music, this is fine theology.
Kevin graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and received his Bachelor’s degree in Jazz Performance at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1999 and was awarded a Master of Arts from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in 2001. He is a scholar and religion and spirituality have informed his musical approach.
The fourth track, “A Gift from God” was composed and arranged by Kevin. Robert Glasper and Jason Brown provide the nearly funky intro of piano and drums. They are soon joined by bass and by the horn section of Kevin on trumpet and Dion Tucker on trombone. Kevin has assembled a masterful array of musicians who have the hearts and minds to give life to the ideas in Kevin's head. Kevin often stands aside and lets Glasper and Brown drive the emotions and then returns to carry it home. Tucker’s trombone is firm support to the end.
The discussion continues on the next track regarding the subject of faith. The question is asked “What is faith?” The response is a direct quote from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” To explain this, the position is offered that faith is really “a big bulk of confidence. That you believe this is going to happen.” Music was discussed as an inspiration of faith. People inspire faith. Life is seen for what it is, and then faith offers something better.
The song that follows is the Gospel standard “Blessed Assurance” another arrangement by Kevin Louis of the 1873 Fanny J. Crosby and Phoebe Knapp classic. Kevin’s own trumpet opens the piece in emotional expressions. The song is an expression of looking forward and resting in confidence—exactly what the musicians had described just before. They carry the song with conviction.
“What is My Purpose?” is another Kevin Louis original. Oshunyaye Brown provides a narrative behind the instrumental overlay and the words spoken are powerful and full of self-searching questions. The theme of the narrative is reflective of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem “Who Am I?” She questions what her reactions to circumstances might be. “Will I jump or will I fall? / Do I dare to look upon my potential, to fill my own shoes? / … / Or do I cry like a motherless child?”
This last line is what proves Kevin to be a scholar of old Gospel music. It is a tribute line to one of the greatest of all hymns, sung as early as the 1870’s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The Fisk Jubilee singers were a cappella vocalists from Fisk University in Nashville. TN. The song was later recorded by the great Paul Robeson and later by Louis Armstrong. However, it was the legendary Mahalia Jackson who gave it such immense popularity in later times. She even recorded it as a medley with Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
The instrumentals provide an anguished expression of the narrative. In the end, however, the line “Will I jump or will I fall?” is answered with a faith-filled response of “Geronimo...” Kevin and the musicians give new expression to what it means for a human being to have faith.
A fitting continuation of that idea is found in the Louis original, “Questions, No Answers.” The percussionists lay down a steady groove that acts as solid footing for the questions that follow. Trumpet and piano continue the inquiry and are joined by trombone. Kevin’s trumpet is the true standout on this track with the full support of the rest. The trombone picks up the questioning and then trombone and trumpet in unison. The delightful aspect is that these questions do not leave one in despair but are questions intended to drive one forward. Even the end of the song is left incomplete with the horns trailing off unresolved… but joyful.
The ninth track revolves about Dion Tucker’s monologue on Grace. It is backed by Dion's own solo trombone rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Dion’s example of Grace is how often it has occurred that there is not enough money to even pay bills…and then comes salvation in the form of being called to a paying gig that provides what he needs. The other members of the group laugh as Kevin reveals that this is what each of them have said. Grace is not being rewarded by money from the sky; it is the chance to use one’s talents in order to earn the reward.
The track fades out to Dion's playing “Amazing Grace” and transitions into his own arrangement of the same song. The track order is well thought-out. This is an album with an intention and a purpose.
Dion’s arrangement is almost contrapuntal in its beginning horn duet. Then the trombone assumes a solo position and delivers a dynamic advance to the flow. Glasper’s keyboards are almost churchy in the support of the horns’ preaching. The piece has barely finished when the startling question “What is God?” opens as the topic of discussion for the next track.
Interestingly, the various responses from the different band musicians are overlaid as a collage and no definitive answer is discernible and that is exactly as it should be. Words like “spirit” and “power” and “creator” can be picked out but there is no dogma anywhere to be found. Kevin Louis is not going to provide the answers for anyone but he will ask the questions with which each person must grapple.
As if to drive that point further, the following track is entitled “Divine Ambiguity-Nebulous Divinity.” Again, leave it to Robert Glasper to lay down the chords to reflect that very idea. The horns adopt the theme and disappear leaving the solo keyboard only for the horns to reappear again. Glasper assumes a solo with right hand creating a series of runs as the left hand keeps up the chord structures that have been in place from the beginning of the song. The trumpet re-emerges followed by the trombone and then begins several bars of trading fours until they join in dissonant unity. This is the music of creating the sonic imagery of Kierkegaard and Aquinas getting in a fist-fight.
The reasonable doubt of that track is replaced by the personal and ethical cry “Give Me a Clean Heart.” This was composed by Gospel great Fred Hammond. Kevin Louis turns it into beautiful and brilliant jazz. The playing from all corners is clean. It is necessarily straightforward and single-minded, leaving the listener to conclude that Kierkegaard must have won the previous fistfight since he wrote the book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. This is a stirring and emotional piece.
The track concludes with a monologue that opens with the powerful line “What we have to focus on is how to become better human beings.” This is the message of all the great prophets; it is better to be ethical than to be religious.
It is that sentiment that leads to an understanding that is embodied in the title of the next piece, “Learn Not to Abuse the Things You Love.” It was composed and arranged by Kevin Louis. It opens with pure and heart-warming piano and trumpet. Then a sweet flute played by Brian Horton (who doubles as the recording and mixing engineer) appears which gives image to the fragility of what we love. At 1:49, it is by far the shortest song of the album which adds to the heartbreak. The sweetness and delicacy are far too short-lived. There is no time for abuse and no time to take for granted.
Percussionist Koko Jones takes the lead in the next discussion track. He speaks of the Bodhisattva ideal of relieving the suffering of others. For him, it is relief of suffering through music. Thus, music is never play but solemn work. After a brief Congolese chant, the music transitions into an explosive brassy jazz introduction of a piece co-written by Louis and Jones entitled “Bodhisattva Wonderful Sound.”
It gives way to the straight jazz rhythms of Koko Brown for the only drum solo of the album which is followed seamlessly by a consecutive solo from Jason Brown. Bass, keys and horns resume the melody but leave the drums to carry on underneath the melodic lines as they move into the next track “Mystic Law.”
There is slight dissonance between the horns but this is pointing to the idea of unity without uniformity which has characterized the whole recording. The horns break off into individual solos and Robert Glasper maintains the unifying element of the keyboard. The song finishes with the unified horns fading out.
The final piece is another traditional hymn of the church entitled “The Old Rugged Cross.” This is not the version you sang in church, however. This is more like a Dixieland version of the George Bennard 1912 classic. It is not mournful and slogging but joyful and vivacious. It reveals Kevin’s New Orleans roots like no other track does and it also shows just how diverse Kevin’s playing can be. He is a brilliant trumpet player and his own grace shows through at every moment. The song is a happy way to conclude such a discussion. Except that it is not the conclusion, after all.
From 4:19 through 4:46 there is silence. That contemplative silence is severely shattered by Robert Glasper breaking into a hilarious send-up of any preacher you care to name. Laughter from the other band members can be heard in the background which turns into near hysteria as Glasper continues his intonations. He tries to illicit the call and response but gets no response as his “congregation” is paralyzed with laughter. In the process, he continues to allude to Gospel songs, hymns and even the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus is Just Alright with Me.” As the hilarity fades out, there is one last theme to be repeated. In unison they call back the original theme, “It’s all-l-l-l right with me.”
That is the message of Music is My Religion. Let the individual find the best expression of their faith, their spirituality, their God. Whatever it is, “It’s all right with me.”
Find Kevin Louis' Music is My Religion at www.fnmusicweb.com
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