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Ruth Naomi Floyd: Jazz Mass

On Root to the Fruit, her fifth recording for the Philadelphia-based Contour label, vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd artfully blends Christian theology and jazz with the help of a world-class ensemble including the great flutist James Newton, tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, drummer Ralph Peterson and pianist James Weidman, who also produced the session. Floyd’s unique repertoire ranges from soulful, strikingly original interpretations of traditional African-American spirituals like “Oh, Freedom” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” to stirring originals strewn with biblical references like “The Bottle of Tears” and “Open the Door to Him” to dramatic renditions of Randy Weston’s “Where?,” Mary Lou Williams’ “Act of Contrition” and Antonín Dvoržák’s “God Is My Shepherd.”

“I grew up with gospel music and absolutely love traditional gospel music,” says Ruth, “but I also just love this idea where someone takes a piece of music and they bring their own experience and expression and gifts to it. And jazz is a brilliant way of doing that.”

Through the courage of her convictions, Floyd is presenting a true jazz expression of her Christian faith on this bold outing, delivering the Holy Scriptures while embracing the all-important elements of swing and improvisation. The two separate rhythm tandems here swing forcefully throughout while the material is imbued with lots of provocative stretching by the principal soloists Thomas and Newton, whose brilliant solo on Floyd’s swinging 3/4 vehicle “Mere Breath” is one of the instrumental highlights.

Her beautiful, soulful voice comes across like a hush on the sparse opener, a 12/8 rendition of the African-American spiritual “No Hiding Place,” accompanied only by Ron Howerton’s congas. Weidman’s ambitious arrangement of another African-American spiritual, “Oh, Freedom,” is a high point of the session. Opening in stark fashion with Ruth’s voice accompanied only by Tyrone Brown’s upright bass, the piece evolves into a harmolodic whirlwind with Newton, Thomas, Weidman and drummer Mark Prince improvising simultaneously in provocative, freewheeling fashion. After building to a dissonant crescendo, the piece resolves to an uptempo swing section that Newton burns over with remarkable fluency before Thomas enters with his signature in-out lines cascading over a swinging pulse provided by Prince and Brown. Shifting gears, it moves into a soulful ballad section that Weidman solos over with tasteful lyricism before Floyd returns to sing the chilling refrain: “And before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

Newton’s flute serves as a second voice to Floyd’s own soaring soprano on a calming rendition of Dvoržák’s “God Is My Shepherd” while Thomas’ edgy tenor voice shadows Ruth’s own on her swinging original “Mercy,” which builds in intensity over nine minutes. Newton also shines on the moving closer, “Goodbye for Now,” which Ruth wrote in loving memory of her maternal grandmother, Lois Olga Goldman Andersen.

“When you look at the historical roots of jazz, it really comes from African-American spirituals,” says Floyd. “So for me it’s such a powerful root, and when you look at the fruit that it produced over the many years and decades, from blues and gospel to jazz, it’s just amazing. So for me it just made sense to do a recording that was steeped in jazz improvisation but still profoundly connected to its root, which is the African-American spirituals.”

As the Reverend Dr. John Nunes states in his accompanying essay to Root to the Fruit: “Those who care deeply about theology often debate and deliberate over questions of what’s best and proper for Christian music. They inquire about what styles can carry sacred texts. After listening with ears wide open, I’m personally led to conclude that jazz may be the optimum creative form for proclaiming the unchanging Truth of God’s Word. Praise God for giving us jazz and Ruth Naomi Floyd.”

Originally Published