The University of Mississippi Gospel Choir
Send Up The Praise

Take the entire O’landa Draper’s Associates band, mix it with an impressively gifted and vibrant university Gospel choir, toss in some superbly written material and place the entire collection in the hands of one of Gospel’s brightest and rising producer talents. The result is perhaps the best Malaco project this year.

The story leading up to this album’s launch is an interesting one. Founded in 1974 as The Black Student Send Up The Praise CDUnion Choir, this ‘no audition’ group is now known as The University of Mississippi Gospel Choir, and consists of 60 students. It’s a choir entirely run by its members, who receive no credit or financial benefits for their involvement.

To finance their first album, a large $14,000 fund-raising effort was undertaken, which lead to Malaco’s agreement to support the live project by way of locating a mobile studio and providing mixing support. An opportune meeting between Jason Clark (who at the time was a member of O’landa Draper’s Associates’ band) and choir director Ron Briggs (the position rotates each year), led to an invitation for Clark to submit a song for the album. After teaching the choir the piece, and on seeing the potential in the group, Clark was impressed. Apparently the good impressions were mutual, since he soon found himself being appointed both music director and producer for the project.

The last piece in the puzzle came when Malaco heard a copy of the live recording. The label decided to far beyond their initial agreed involvement, jumped up and signed the group straight out.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well, if Gospel’s grassroots can overcome a reluctance in taking a test drive with an unknown name, then The Univeristy of Mississippi Gospel Choir might well provide the biggest anointed octane drive of the year. With an ability to kick it funky and phat on one track, soulfully express a ballad on the next, and with enough hot sauce to please even the staunchest Gospel critic, this college choir proves that they can more than hold their own with the best on the professional choir circuit. In addition to music direction and production, Jason Clark is credited with keyboards and four songwriting contributions, with more than success in each area.

Ten tracks strong, the cuts are diverse, and include a live-recorded, acappella, “Tell Somebody”. ThisThe University of Mississippi Gospel Choir song starts out at a pleasant finger snapping pace with rhythmic choir parts, before the choir flips the switch into a full-throttle, harmony-infused praise send-up that almost makes you forget that this is acappella.

Another excellent track is the title cut. Written by Clark, it takes on an immediate jam vibe with the band intro (organ, bass, brassy keyboards, drums) before the head-bobbing choir melodic hooks threaten to overwhelm. Kevin Davidson (director of New Haven’s Kevin Davidson and The Voices) is also prominent as a songwriter on this project, with three contributions, including some churchy material (“Praise Him”) and some funkier stuff too (“Lift the Praise Up”). Chris Morris (The Associates) contributes a fine bass-driven church number as well (“On the Way”).

Ballads are well-represented. “Redemption Story” is a beautiful rendition of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, accented with an appropriate conga accompaniment and an awfully soul-pleasing lead from current choir director, Dee Thomas. “That’s Why” falls into much the same camp, with Christi Richardson’s wide-ranging alto lead encouraging the guitar-iced groove set by the band. The melodies on both cuts are loaded with beauty. Another hook-laced gem is “Good To Me”, featuring five female leads who contribute both individually and as a group, to the cut. This is a song that just lingers and lingers.

The musicianship from The Associate’s band is flawless, and an incredible addition to this project. Vocals, both choir and lead, are marvelous, with disciplined dynamics and texture consistently demonstrated. The songs, they’re all good. Don’t be sleeping on this one. Please!

Producers: Jason Clark, Chris Morris
album release date: November, 1999
Malaco Records

— reviewed by Stan North

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