Church: Songs of Soul and Inspiration

Various Artists
Church: Songs of Soul & Inspiration

Billed as the first of several upcoming albums to “embrace the musical roots and role of church in the lives of today’s leading artists”, Church: Songs of Soul & Inspiration comes as a joint effort of UTV Records, DMI Records and Carmen Productions.

It’s a plum project — a double-CD of the enhanced variety that honors the church-based foundations of nearly every female soul singer out there. You name the female soul artist, and CDshe’s probably on here, from Chaka Khan to Patti Austin to Patti Labelle to Stephanie Mills and Shirley Caesar, and that’s only a sampling.

Compiling the all-new-music set is the intriguing tandem of songwriter/producer Tena Clark and classical opera singer Denyce Graves, both of whom obviously treated the project as a labor of love. (The included CD-ROM that comes with the project contains artist interviews and performance footage features, making it a pure and unadultered bonus.)

Graves herself contributes “Ave Marie”, her interpretation roughened up slightly with Gospel overtones coutesy of smooth harmony from The Fire Choir —the mass vocal ensemble that appears throughout the project, binding it together with an almost 70s-ish Hawkins-esque flair.

Patti Labelle reprises her “Way Up There” composition, written first as a memorial for the Columbia Shuttle astronauts. The diva gives the song the sort of spine-tingling treatment that only she can give, with organ and piano shouting their support alongside The Fire Choir, all underneath Labelle’s dizzying, freestyle vocals.

Nnenna Freelon sings “Ooh Child” in her intimate soft jazz style, soaring lightly into her upper register with Take 6 dropping harmonic morsels alongside light jazz accompaniment.

Patti LabelleIndeed, even the supporting players on this project are headliners. Consider some of the instrumentalists alone: Gerard Albright, Billy Preston, Greg Phillinganes, Louis Conte. Then there’s Dr. Maya Angelou bookending the album with her spoken poetry, and writer Toni Morrison penning the liner notes.

Back to the music, En Vogue offers an inspired take on “How Deep Is Your Love” and Patti Austin injects Gospel soul into the infectious and motivational hit first heard from Des’ree, “You Gotta Be”. Ann Nesby makes Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” come alive.

As the only ‘pure Gospel’ singer on the project, Shirley Caesar does justice to the familiar “His Eye Is On The Sparrow”, singing it with restraint at first, before letting out the vocal flood with modulations as The Fire Choir helps to ignite the climax.

Chaka Khan with “Love Me Still”, Dionne Warwick with “What The World Needs Now”, Stephanie Mills with “Reach Out & Touch” and Jennifer Holliday with “Wonder of You” also contribute.

Props to the Fire Choir, who excel by lifting every single song on the project with rich, unfettered singing. They also serve up Stevie Wonder’s “As” all on their own, and finish up the CD with a memorable choir-only version of “Way Up There”, an arrangement sure to zoom into choir repertoires across the land.

Producer: Tena Clark
album release date: June 3, 2003
UTV Records / DMI Records / Carmen Productions

— reviewed by Stan North

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