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New CDs sing the praises of Mahalia Jackson

By Greg Cahill

IT'S ALL THE RAGE in Harlem. Many hip young Japanese and European tourists, searching for authenticity and the really vogue thing to do in the Big Apple, are eschewing the trendy dance clubs and booking passage on the Harlem Spirituals bus tours, where for the price of a mediocre meal ($27) they get a taste of salvation and a chance to experience firsthand some of the most moving spiritual music on the planet.

For those unable or unwilling to go where the action is--even the Bay Area has plenty of fine gospel choirs--heaven is no further than your armchair, thanks to a trio of newly reissued traditional gospel CDs that sing the praises of gospel great Mahalia Jackson.

Sony/Legacy, which a decade ago issued a marvelous two-disc Jackson anthology--Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns, covering her work from 1954 to 1968--has just released this trio of stirring digitally remastered recordings to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Jackson's birth.

Jackson, a bluesy belter, died in 1972.

Mahalia Jackson Recorded in Europe during Her Last Tour captures the singer during her first two-month concert tour of Europe, accompanied by longtime collaborator Mildred Falls on piano. "[Falls'] left hand [is] as solid as the rock of ages," wrote music critic j. poet, "with flourishes that flicker like the breath of the Holy Ghost."

The original European Concert album bore only nine tracks recorded in 1961 in Sweden, and contained a cover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut "You'll Never Walk Alone" and such familiar gospel standards as "Elijah Rock," Clara Ward's "How I Got Over," and "It Don't Cost Very Much," by Mahalia's mentor Thomas A. Dorsey. The new Gospel Spirit Series edition includes two previously unreleased tracks from the archives.

The newly reissued Mahalia Jackson in Concert, Easter Sunday, 1967 marked the singer's historic premiere at the Philharmonic Hall of Lincoln Center in New York. The date was Jackson's first major concert in three years after suffering heart problems that later took her life at age 60. The landmark concert features stirring performances backed by a tasteful group that includes a pianist, organist, and guitarist, along with Count Basie Orchestra drummer Jo Jones. The reissue features four previously unreleased tracks.

The central decade of Jackson's 20-year tenure on the Columbia roster (1955-65) is sampled on Sunday Morning Prayer Meeting with Mahalia, a powerful 14-track compilation that is indeed a re-creation of a black Baptist Sunday morning service. It's hard to pick a highlight in this dynamic selection, but the previously unreleased 1961 version of "Nobody but You, Lord" is worth the price of admission to this prayer revival.

Every track is a brilliant revelation by an artist who became known as the Queen of Gospel. "Mahalia has the awe-inspiring gift of communicating the original and true meaning of words," Francis Newton wrote in the New Statesman in 1961. "When she sings the word 'soul,' we know what it is. When she sings 'O Lord my God,' sending out her leonine contralto like a gigantic whip, or 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' placing each syllable separately like a pillar of steel, we are with her in Zion. When she sings 'I Found the Answer' ('Now the sun is shining for me each day'), we believe her."

Spin du Jour

There are moments on Spirit of the Century (Realworld), the new CD by the Blind Boys of Alabama, that literally take your breath away. Case in point: when gospel great and group leader Clarence Fountain audibly pauses, just for a half a beat, plants his feet firmly on the ground, and belts out the middle section of "Amazing Grace" (set here to the music of "House of the Rising Sun"). Absolutely awesome. That track--a song of redemption melded to an infamous whorehouse lament--sets the tone for this gem. It's a winning formula: the Blind Boys of Alabama, together for half a century, join the likes of blues accompanists Charlie Musselwhite, John Hammond, Danny Thompson, and David Lindley on a set in which gospel standards rub elbows with rock songs by Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones, and Ben Harper. Blistering, bluesy. and blissful.

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From the July 19-25, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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