New Life Community Choir featuring John P. Kee
Blessed By Association
We won't beat around the bush.Producer: John P. Kee
album release date: November 12, 2002
There is probably no-one else who could get away with what John P. Kee and the New Community Choir manage to pull off on their latest project, Blessed By Association.
The diversity, the audacity, the sheer power of the music tied to ministry all of this while staying true to their grassroots musical foundation that have drawn the many thousands to New Life’s ministry over the decades.
Musically, this studio project is elastic and that’s actually an understatement. Amidst powerful new songs with that quickly recognized Kee vocal sound, signature vamps, New Life choir phrasing and band power, there’s an abundance of new approaches to dig into.
To satisfy what everyone always looks for in a new John Kee album, there’s up-tempo power-stompers such as “He’s the Greatest” which is very lightly colored with a Caribbean bounce but comes with a straight-forward drive that moves back to Kee's familiar funky vamp.
There’s "I Won't Let Go", a traditional uptempo cut that isn’t good news for those with sensitive hands, but will be welcomed by everyone else. Amidst the synth and R&B fusion on the project, one of Kee's consistently-smart moves is to not forget straight church. Here he delivers a hand-clapper that is boiled down to the encourager catch phrase "I won't let go!" Zeb Harrison kicks the live trombone for a little praise band flava.
In the mix of the album’s 22 tracks are a couple of remixes or alternate versions of songs. In addition to the origianl, “I Won’t Let Go” is available as both a dance mix and as lengthy ‘interlude’ to close out the album. Plus there’s a couple of facelifted flashbacks to previous hits (“I Do Worship”, “You Blessed Me”).
The expected assembly of psalmists and vocalists make their presence known: Miche Waller returns on keyboards, Tony Russell on bass, Tim Mole on guitar, Shelia Lakin with her gift for sweet balladry (“Breathe on Me”).
But there’s also some unexpected guests. Pastor Kee has long been a fan of Rance Allen, so it’s appropriate that Allen shares a musical as well as a ministry bond here as he offers up a hype intro to rev up the project.
Rhonda McLemore steps in with her slightly-jazzed vocals on “Enough is Enough”, a song about moving away from the old life. Tonéx continues his association with Kee as he trades vocals and rap flows on the programmed dance-boisterousness of “I Am”.
Now for that previously-mentioned audacious diversity of styles:
“Just For Me” is what Kee refers to as ‘his country song’. He dares to take New Life waaaaay over that legendary Durham county line and straight into the very heart of Southern Gospel territory with a definite twangy, bluegrass twist. When you first hear it, you keep waiting for them to switch up and break it down Gospel style, but they just keep plugging right along!
Kee is so musically gifted that he moves about in various genres without sounding like he's trying too hard. Hard to fathom, but "Just For Me" this ‘hot number’ as Kee calls it works so well that it nearly qualifies for the most infectious piece on the project. The added intro and outro radio skit serve up some welcome guffaws.
Kee brings in African flavor by way of chant-influenced vocals and rhythmically-intense instrumentation on “Karamu (Celebration)”. Not to be outdone on the diversity tip, “It’s Time For Worship” showcases New Life in a classical setting, with a smoothly-rendered round sound of hymnal psalm set over rippling piano.
Another highlight is "At the Cross", appropriately dedicated to Earth Wind and Fire's Maurice White. The song is layer upon layer of musical genius. Classic bass drives topped by EW&F-influenced horn licks leave nothing to be desired, but then the thickest vocal track is the cherry on the top. The key change transitions are nothing short of mind boggling, not because they're difficult, but because they require quick thinking and hearing.
Look for the song “That’s Why I Praise You” to also gain considerable attention. The soulful ballad has a great melody and is notable for the marvelous lead vocal of Curtis Lewis Jr., as he weaves his way through the composition with heart-driven expression.
Not only do Kee and New Life have a firm grasp on what works for them, the addition of such a variety of styles and array of sounds puts an emphatic exclamation point on the fact that this vocal ministry knows how to have fun without ever sacrificing the power of their ministry.
For any who have been wondering how Kee and crew could possibly manage to top their thoroughly enjoyable double-CD set Not Guilty, the proof is all over Blessed By Association. Let there be no doubt, they certainly do.
reviewed by Stan North and Melanie Clark—
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