Friday, July 11, 2008

Another kind of gospel

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic with Oral Moses
Extreme Spirituals
Cuneiform Records

Gospel is one of the most conservative American music forms. It's canon has been codified for generations and its stock arrangements vary little from performer to performer. The music's power lies in the technique and emotional delivery of the singer, appropriately enough for a genre whose reason for existence is spiritual transcendence.

But what if you took the gospel canon, deconstructed it and reassembled the compositions themselves to examine their contours more thoughtfully? That's exactly what Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, with the help of vocalist Oral Moses, attempt on Extreme Spirituals. Mesozoic keyboardist Erik Lindgren, who arranges eight of the twelve tracks here, channels Ellington, Coltrane, Zappa and Bach en route to
what some might call an epiphany of interpretive genius. The songs certainly speak a language of their own, and the arrangements translate them by reweaving the simple, powerful melodies through harmonic and rhythmic variations interlaced with fantastic constructs of piano, treated guitar, synthesizer, flute, saxophone and four
percussionists. The music is meticulously composed, as the Zappaesque "Listen to the Angels Shoutin'" or the stirring program music of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" easily demonstrate, but on the angular foray during "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" and the swinging "Great Day" the playing has an improvised quality. The ensemble employed extraordinary discipline to pull this off.

Extreme Spirituals would be a fascinating experience as an instrumental album, but Moses' vocals are nothing short of genius. Moses avoids the usual emotive approach to gospel shouting in favor of a classical reading a la Paul Robeson that interacts brilliantly with the well crafted arrangements. The beautiful intro to guitarist Michael Bierylo's arrangement of "A Little More Faith in Jesus" matches Moses' sonorous baritone moans perfectly, while the simple accompaniment of "Swing Low Sweet Charity" and the quiet, contemplative fugue "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," with Moses humming along to a synthesizer coda, opens this music up to another dimension. And the album closes with a pure triumph, “Amen,” recast as a terrific dance medium with a catchy rhythm track that has Moses actually breaking out of the stern character he maintains throughout when he sings “Feel so good now!”

Ultimately, of course, the success of such an iconoclastic approach to sacred
music is in what Dewey Redman called “the ear of the behearer,” but it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most orthodox of gospel fans finding fault with such a creative attempt to bring new life to this material.

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