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Willie Pickens: JazzSpirit Volume 1

My only previous exposure to Willie Pickens was on several Elvin Jones albums of the early ’90s, like In Europe and Going Home. Even in a band that pushed boundaries like Jones’ Jazz Machine, there was something surprising about every Pickens solo. Pickens is 75 this year, and he still plays lines that veer from expectation. He lives on the south side of Chicago, and these two volumes grew out of a sacred-jazz concert series at Hyde Park Union Church. The 20 selections all come from European canonical hymns, American gospel music and African-American spirituals.

Pickens uses three quartets of Chicago musicians, featuring saxophonists Ari Brown and Pat Mallinger and trumpeter Tito Carrillo. There are also trio tracks, solo-piano pieces and two keyboard duets with Pickens’ daughter, Bethany. Albums with such a variety of configurations, especially when they are recorded in different studios by different engineers, often become miscellanies. But the two volumes of Jazz Spirit hold together because all players are committed to the unifying theme. The program includes famous religious music like “Jesus Loves Me” and “A Mighty Fortress” and less familiar material like “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love,” from Ghana.

This project is about inspired, hard-blowing, free-wheeling jazz responses to music with a spiritual basis. Every Ari Brown solo is a persuasive version of modulated zeal. Pat Mallinger, on “O Lord You Are My God and King,” does not solo, but cries out the melody with passion and dignity. After Tito Carrillo’s trumpet proclaims the anthem of “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High,” Pickens spills out of it, tumbling almost free, just barely tethered. The purest expressions of faith here are Pickens’ solo performances. “Here I Am Lord” is a halting, questing meditation. “A Mighty Fortress” begins in bright melody, then gradually darkens and thickens. Pickens even flirts with deep, tight “devil’s chords” in order to transcend them.

Originally Published