Spiritual Impressions finds journeyman pianist James Weidman wading through the deep waters, alternately troubled and joyful, of African-American spirituals. He imbues these gems with driving grooves, some intriguing reharmonizations and bracing solos. All serve to freshen up enduring pieces that remain deeply meaningful to so many.
Weidman, best known as a sideman with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano and the late Abbey Lincoln and Kevin Mahogany, makes a superb match with gospel-rooted singer Ruth Naomi Floyd, for whom the pianist has produced and arranged several recordings. She’s a natural, embodying the spirituals’ simultaneous reference to spiritual bliss and the struggles associated with slavery and its aftermath.
The opening track, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” begins with sticky Caribbean-tinted rhythms provided by bassist Harvie S and drummer Vince Ector, as Floyd relates the Old Testament tale of Daniel in the lion’s den. The tune later shifts to earthy acoustic swing, for improvisations by Weidman and saxophonist Anthony Nelson. A similarly syncopated groove undergirds “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” which winds its way into Nelson’s urgent tenor turn.
“Deep River” unfolds as a stately stroll, topped with Nelson’s flute incantations, before shifting to laidback swing that feeds extended solos by Weidman and Nelson. Weidman’s own brief “Prelude to Freedom (Troubled Waters),” with Nelson on soprano saxophone, abuts a lightly funky “Wade in the Water.” On the sparse “No Hiding Place,” Weidman’s weaving melodica lines spar with Nelson’s tenor bursts over lean rhythm-section moves. Weidman demonstrates his prowess as a composer on “African Spirals,” all hypnotic groove and slow-twisting melodies, and effectively caps the moving set of music with an unaccompanied “Walk Together, Children.”