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Ruth Naomi Floyd: Fan Into Flame

My appreciation for gospel singers has always begun and ended with Mahalia Jackson-until, that is, I heard Ruth Naomi Floyd’s Fan Into Flame (Contour). Obviously, I’m a little late to the Floyd flock. Blessed with a soaring mezzo-soprano that simultaneously suggests the jazz smarts of Cassandra Wilson and theatrical majesty of Audra McDonald, she has been recording for nearly a decade, earning unilateral praise from the secular and gospel press. Little as I know about such music, it’s impossible not to be moved by her glorious reading of Ellington’s “In the Beginning God” or stirred by the raw intensity of Jackson’s “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain.” Most of the dozen other tracks were written, alone or in collaboration, either by Floyd or her musical soul mate, pianist James Weidman. At least two-the rollicking “What We Speak” and the hauntingly powerful “Faith”-are on par with the best contemporary show tunes, while another, the blistering “Don’t Be Ashamed (To Fan Into Flame the Gift of God),” is worthy of hip-hop’s most potent poets. Only once does Floyd stray from the gospel path, covering Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” It’s also the only track on which she falters, failing to recognize that Weill’s hazy hymn to mature wisdom is best served with Spartan simplicity.

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