‘I want to give Him back to the listeners…’
WHERE MY HEART BELONGS
Shadow Mountain Records
Like many R&B and soul artists, the multi-Grammy winner Gladys Knight got her start in the church. It’s to the church she returns for her latest release, Where My Heart Belongs.
The album finds Gladys Knight singing as strong as ever and delivering the selections in her signature tear-stained voice as if they were personal prayers or testimonies. Indeed, she has said, “I vividly remember the time in my life when I felt lost, as if something was missing. I was desperately seeking answers and when I finally found the answer, I learned that it was Jesus Christ. He gave me this gift and out of obedience, I want to give Him back to the listeners.”
That’s the sense you get on the album.
Gladys Knight, ‘Always’ (written by Kirk Franklin), from Where My Heart Belongs
With hits like “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Jim Weatherly’s oft-gospelized “You’re the Best Thing That Happened to Me,” we know Knight can deliver a passionate ballad. Most of the songs on Where My Heart Belongs are well-written melodic ballads with optimistic lyrics from the pens of such top-shelf songwriters as BeBe Winans, Brandon Avery Smith, and Kirk Franklin. Not surprisingly, they are the highlights, though there’s a lot to be said for Knight’s own composition, the rhythmic “Life.”
Kirk Franklin’s “Always,” a song of thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice, is the album’s showpiece. It features heartrendingly rich harmonies from the GK Chorale. “Need You Love You,” on which Knight shares writing credits with Winans and Stephan Moccio, sets the album’s whispered prayer-like tone.
Gladys Knight, ‘Just Look Up,’ from Where My Heart Belongs
Where My Heart Belongs even covers the Christian high holidays. A rich, orchestral version of the Easter spiritual “Were You There,” performed with the Dr. Benjamin Wright Orchestra, is accompanied by the classical SUV Choir and stops just short of an anticipated heart-pounding crescendo. For Christmas, Knight interpolates “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” in “Happy Birthday Jesus.” (Truth be told, I would have been happy to hear “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” without Jim Weatherly’s overly sentimental song.)
The results can be mixed when a recognized pop artist records a sacred album. Not here. Where My Heart Belongs is an album that both gospel music and pop music enthusiasts will find rewarding.
‘…inspirational messages with electric drive…’
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
It is no understatement when, on her new EP Under the Influence, singer-songwriter Kebra Moore sings “I have a testimony.”
On Christmas Eve 1999, Kebra, her fiancé, and fourteen-month-old son were heading home to Arkansas from New Orleans, where they were making final wedding preparations, when they were involved in an auto accident. While the fiancé and son escaped without injury, Kebra was left a paraplegic.
Turning tragedy into possibility, Kebra became a spokesperson for the disabled. She was named Miss Wheelchair Mississippi 2013 and earlier this year launched the Beautiful Campaign to help the disabled to reclaim their lives physically and psychologically.
Kebra, ‘Never Let Him Go,’ from the album Under the Influence
The campaign is named after “Beautiful,” a single from Under the Influence. A thematic cousin to Christina Aguilera’s song of the same title, Kebra’s “Beautiful” underscores her commitment to the importance of inner splendor.
Musically, Kebra embraces the urban inspirational/EDM sound, her voice a study in urgent intensity. Perpetual motion praise songs such as “Get Up” and “Never Let Him Go,” another single from the EP, evoke the audience-participatory antiphonal music of Mary Mary and Trin-i-tee 5:7. An electric remix of “Testimony” by DJ Jazzy J (bonus track) is ready made for praise dancing. As such, Under the Influence will be of particular interest to younger worshippers who prefer inspirational messages with electric drive.
Picks: “Beautiful,” “Testimony.”
‘…tilting towards today’s jazz-inflected sound…’
INSTRUMENT OF PRAISE
Instrument of Praise by Chicago’s Tammy Smith sandwiches slices of traditional singing between healthy helpings of contemporary gospel with a smooth jazz patina.
Nowhere is this combination more apparent than on the two part “The Blood.” Smith begins by offering Andrae Crouch’s classic “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” in a traditional vein, consistent with the original, then switches to a modern interpretation on the second part.
As a singer, Smith possesses a light soprano that becomes even more delicate on the top notes. Her style suits the album’s majority of the album’s material well, as the songs have perky melodies and optimistic lyrics. These songs, however, are spiritual entertainment when compared to the album’s traditional fare. Smith shines brightest on the old standard and gospel singer’s demonstration piece, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Accompanied by piano and recorded live, Smith lets her Chicago roots show with every dramatic turn of phrase, pause for emphasis, and melismatic run. Had she shouted at the end, several in the congregation would have required smelling salts.
“He’s Sweet I Know” is another strong traditional reading by Smith, which suggests that if she recorded an entire album of church classics, it would be a great contribution to gospel music. Nevertheless, Instrument of Praise tilts toward today’s jazz-inflected sound, with Smith offering particularly confident vocals on “We’ve Come to Praise Him” and “Don’t Worry.”
A former lead vocalist for the Chicago Mass Choir, which has produced many fine soloists over the years, Tammy Smith received the 2014 Rhythm of Gospel Award for Best Performance by a Praise & Worship Artist.
Pick: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
‘…sustaining the contemporary gospel/P&W style…’
DESTINY—LIVE AT THE DREAM CENTER…AND MORE
Kevin LeVar and One Sound
OneSound Entertainment LLC
Singer-songwriter Kevin LeVar is among the new generation of male gospel crooners that includes Earnest Pugh, Micah Stampley, Keith Williams, and Brian Courtney Wilson. He also knows how to craft a memorable melody, as demonstrated by his singles, “A Heart That Forgives,” “We’re Only Getting Started” and “You Are Not Alone.”
Ballads have been, and continue to be, LeVar’s sweet spot, and he adds two more to his oeuvre on Destiny—Live at the Dream Center…and More. The songs, “Your Destiny” and the inspirational “Born To Be Great,” were recorded in the studio and therefore part of the “more,” as is “A Heart That Forgives,” re-released here for listeners who may have missed it the first time around. “Born To Be Great” is the higher intensity selection, a Bruce Springsteen-esque, Olympic-sized anthem to overcoming obstacles and reaching for one’s goals.
The remainder of the album was recorded live at the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. It finds LeVar performing a variety of songs. On the spicy “Jesus Blues,” God is disappointed about the lost world He loves so much. “Get Out the Boat” has a snappy Broadway jazziness to it. “I Wanna Be Close” will resonate with church workers who are so busy organizing the services that they have neglected their personal relationship with God. It is evident this song hit home with the live audience, as demonstrated by their exhortations on the song’s reprise. The song certainly recalled my own experience as a music minister. For many years, I was so focused on handling the details of the music portions of the service that I had to leave active music ministry to reclaim for myself the spirituality of the worship experience.
Kevin LeVar & One Sound, ‘A Heart That Forgives’ from the 2009 album, Let’s Come Together
The live performance moves into an atmospheric P&W section, featuring the delicate if conventional praisers “All We Need is a Word,” “Still, Such an Awesome God,” and “Whatever It Takes.” The album finishes strong with a string of high energy selections.
Destiny—Live at the Dream Center…and More is Kevin LeVar and One Sound sustaining the contemporary gospel/P&W style for which they are known
Picks: “Your Destiny,” “Born To Be Great.”
‘..an artist with staying power’
Karew Records/eOne Entertainment
It is fascinating how gospel music, a genre where the signature sound is brisk and exuberant, can be most beautiful when sung slowly and melodically. David Daughtry includes both the rapid and the measured on his impressive self-titled debut project.
Although Daughtry delivers several fine uptempo selections on the album, the worshipful ballads “You Are” and the hypnotic “I Call Your Name” demonstrate his dexterous, earnest tenor. He launches falsetto notes well into the upper register and gets as high as Philippe Wynne (Spinners) on a cover of the Winans’ question-and-answer song, “How Can You Live Without Christ,” where his vibrato evokes the young Smokey Robinson.
David Daughtry, ‘God is Great (Leap!),’ from his self-titled album
Speaking of the Winans, Daughtry pays homage to his COGIC upbringing throughout the album. His collaboration with COGIC Music Department President Dr. Judith McAllister produces the current single, “God Is Great—Leap,” a medley of well-known congregational songs punctuated by the percussive use of the word “leap.” Later, Daughtry does the hip-slapping “Be Healed, Delivered, Set Free.” “Great and Mighty is He” has a rhythmic repetitiveness and a snappy call-and-response with the background vocalists. He finishes the closing song, Kurt Carr’s “When God Says No,” with a variation on the COGIC “Yes Lord” chant, while Jason White contributes an organ accompaniment straight out of the old church.
Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, David Daughtry is currently Leader of Praise and Worship for the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, where the pastor is Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. The album is on Karen Clark Sheard and Bishop J. Drew Sheard’s Karew imprint. It’s clear from Daughtry’s debut project that his voice has staying power.
Picks: “God Is Great—Leap,” “Be Healed, Delivered, Set Free.”
‘…a personal journey from fear and struggle to the arms of God…’
TEARS 4 FEARS
From the Kansas City area but with family roots in Liberia, West Africa, singer-songwriter Queyonoh Kweh (pron. Queena Kway) released her debut album, Tears 4 Fears, this summer.
Queyonoh has a distinctively musky voice evocative of R&B and soul chanteuse Macy Gray. Her songs have a pop sensibility enveloped in smooth jazz arrangements. The melodies reflect the diversity of her music inspirations, which run from Fred Hammond and the Winans to Roberta Flack and Anita Baker. Lyrically, her songs express a personal journey from fear and struggle to the arms of God, none more acutely than on the title track.
Queyonoh, ‘A Friend,’ from the album Tears 4 Fears
The melodies have a uniformity that match Queyonoh’s vocal range, which doesn’t stray too far north or south of the middle of the stave. This is most evident on “This Love,” a song that features the dynamic Torrey Isaac who makes easy work of the gospel scale.
The album’s lead single, “A Friend,” is where everything comes together. The song is simple, not crowded lyrically, and delivered with more confidence by Queyonoh and her background vocalists than any other song on the album. One exception is “A Man Named Jesus,” featuring a strong vocal assist by Ernest Merritt. It could be the second single.
The album closes with “The Lord’s Prayer” the familiar Pater Noster but set to a brand new melody and a meditative arrangement.
While well produced, Tears 4 Fears could have benefited from a few familiar songs written by other songwriters, since it can be difficult to assess a new artist and brand new songs at the same time. It would also have been interesting to hear Queyonoh sing something from her family’s native Liberia, or in the country’s musical style. Food for thought for the next album?
Pick: “A Friend”
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer and author. His “Gospel Memories” radio program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago’s WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at the station’s website. Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard online at the Gospel Memories Radio Show. Bob is also the founder and editor of The Black Gospel Blog, now the Journal of Gospel Music, the source for the reviews published here. Bob launched JGM on the tenth anniversary of The Black Gospel Blog, which he founded July 28, 2004, as the first blog to cover African American gospel music. His first book, Shout Troubles Over: The Birth of Gospel Music in Chicago, is scheduled for publication in March 2015 by the University of Illinois Press as part of its Music in American Life Series. Bob lives in Chicago with his wife, author Laurel Delaney, and their two cats.