James Weidman’s “Spiritual Impressions” put a jazz twist on gospel favorites

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Pianist and educator James Weidman has a career spanning more than 30 years. On “Spiritual Impressions,” Weidman and the ensemble he has put together give traditional gospel songs the jazz treatment without removing them from their original purpose.

About James Weidman and his ensemble

In a career that has spanned decades, Weidman has worked as an accompanist and a side musician for acclaimed performers. Among the people he has worked with are Abby Lincoln, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman and Kevin Mahogany, to name a few.

Weidman’s purpose with “Spiritual Impressions” is to pay homage to the music that grew out of the slave system found in the American South. He portrays slaves’ devout belief that they would be set free, just like Israelite slaves in the Bible.

The songs are invariably about trouble, freedom, and suffering in general. Weidman’s treatment of the subject matter retains its gravity, while changes in time and rhythm put an original spin on the traditional songs.

In addition to his work as a musician, Weidman is on the faculty at William Paterson University.

On “Spiritual Impressions,” Weidman plays piano, organ, and melodica. He is joined by Ruth Naomi Floyd on vocals, Anthony Nelson on tenor and soprano saxophones, as well as bass clarinet and flute.  Harvie S. plays acoustic and electric bass and Vince Ector plays drums, djembe, and sangba.

“Spiritual Impressions”: the sound of tribute

While all 11 tracks have laudable qualities, two stand out. “Wade in the Water” is a popular song in black American churches. Often sung during baptism services, (not always, but frequently), the symbolism of water and its purifying effect on sinners make it an emotional song for congregants.

The song opens with drum clacks and a driving, rumbling bass befitting a rock song. The organ takes over the soundscape, softly. Then Floyd’s vocals begin. Her voice is flexible and takes on several dynamics in the span of just a few lines. Going from legato to staccato and from mid-range to high, listeners expect the singer to miss a note or a beat. It doesn’t happen. Her voice is a trained instrument. And while the instrumentation is at times enthralling, the organ showcase gets a bit dizzying, and listeners find themselves missing the vocal part. On the second half of the song, the ensemble seems to start the song over again. The soft clack and thump of the drums signal that a new motif is coming. The vocals return, over soft instrumentation. In fact, at one point the instruments drop out and Floyd’s voice is on display. This happens to nice effect.

“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” is a song whose 19th-century roots are obvious. Floyd’s vocals are a mix of crisp and smooth. The tone is hopeful and serious. The horns do an effective job of punctuating the lyrical line. Floyd’s change in dynamics again helps the song come to life. The upright bass and piano have a showcase almost midway through the song. Their interplay reminds listeners of the vocal part. Also, it is a respectful touch that the songs on “Spiritual Impressions” manage to maintain the somber tone appropriate to the songs’ messages, while also sounding like jazz. However, the songs do not sound like party songs.

Weidman and his ensemble pay tribute to a difficult time in American history on “Spiritual Impressions.” The group makes the songs sound contemporary without forgetting about their original purpose.

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