The best thing I found in the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping orgy was a whole new rendering of Messiah on CD. The concept of Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration alone was worth risking the $16 purchase price. Understand that Handel's Messiah is special to me. I sing it every year at the University of Miami, and many consider it to be among the most popular of classical pieces. Especially at this time of year. So this was a real find.
With names like Edwin Hawkins, the Boys Choir of Harlem, Take 6, Andrae Crouch, and the Sounds of Blackness, I expected a straight rendering of the baroque masterpiece, except maybe a little bit looser in style and with the richness of gospel voices. But what I first heard when I played the overture was the drums -- African-style drums backed by a single melody line on synthesizer. The theme was assumed by a choir humming in the style of a Negro spiritual, which was replaced by ragtime piano, big band, gospel, blues, jazz fusion, and hip-hop, for what the dust jacket billed as "A Partial History of Black Music." And it is that, plus more, although the lack of any Motown was surprising.
Despite the smorgasbord of styles, the piece holds together well, with the exception of the abrupt transition from the brooding minor vocals of the Negro spiritual to the rinky-dink ragtime piano. But for this album the overture was just right. The rich variety of the black musical tradition is a big part of what this CD is all about. That is its strength.
Sad to say, that's also its greatest weakness. The album lacks the unity of style necessary to hold the Messiah together as a tale. Much of the emotional power of the Messiah arises from the plot, and the segments here are so stylistically different that it's easy to lose the thread of the story. It seems as if the arrangements were written to stand on their own -- instead of complementing and leading into one another. Such emphasis on providing a sampler of black styles almost causes the Messiah to surrender its soul. But the words are still there, and the music is adequate, occasionally raising goose bumps.
The best cut is Dianne Reeves's reggae rendition of the chorus, "And the Glory of the Lord." Light and laid-back, but melodically true to Handel, this entry is surprisingly stirring. Reeves's inflection, or just the way the words roll off her tongue, combined with her subtle use of dynamics, excites even without heavy crescendos.
The rest is a mixed bag. The superb instrumentation and energetic rhythms in "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming" (Patti Austin) bolster the spirit of the original work. The mood of "Behold the Lamb of God" comes through without words in the piano-and-sax fusion of the Yellowjackets. (If you know the words, you'll "hear" them anyway.) The joyous, raucous blend of styles in "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" is perfect. However, the chip-on-the-shoulder, rap-with-attitude style of "Glory to God" (Michelle Weens, Leaders of the New School, Boys Choir of Harlem) seems mightily incongruous with the song's message of peace on Earth, goodwill toward men. It sounds more like the theme to In Living Color than an angel chorus announcing the birth of Christ. No goose bumps.
I am admittedly not a great fan of hip-hop, but if the producers felt this style had to be represented, they could have found a better home for it elsewhere in the Messiah. In fact, it works quite well in "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted" (Mike E., Lizz Lee, and Chris Willis). My only complaint about "Every Valley" is that it begins by rudely interrupting a straight rendering of the baroque air with a crash of keyboard noise in a trite "ain't we cool" thumb of the nose at Handel. The adaptation is strong enough to stand on its own merits, without that kind of musical arrogance.
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There are several other notable performances. Stevie Wonder and Take 6 collaborate in a jazzy and mostly acceptable arrangement of "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion." Al Jarreau delivering "Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage?" and Vanessa Bell Armstrong with Daryl Coley in "Comfort Ye My People" score high as well.
And then there's the "Hallelujah Chorus." Disappointing. To be sure it's nicely done -- delivered in a strong black-gospel style, just what I expected the entire album to be like. The problem is that the gospel style hits you straight from the first note, all crescendo, which means, really, that there is no crescendo. And in the "Hallelujah Chorus" that's a big problem. If you want to reach a climax (and that's what the "Hallelujah Chorus" is all about) you need a little foreplay. The chorus is alive and exciting, and it gets you close, oh, so close. But it just plain never gets you over the edge.
A Soulful Celebration is a serious album -- not a trivial commercialization of Handel's masterpiece. It is a Messiah in the vernacular. For those who love the traditional Messiah, it may take a second or third listening to adjust your ear to the new form. Even with its minor flaws, I believe it will grow on you. I think you should find it.