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The Gospel Set

June 27, 2023

Bob Marovich’s Gospel Picks

Jonathan Butler: Returning to his roots and applying his craft to an expression of African sentiments, sounds, and rhythms.


By Robert M. Marovich


‘…messages of hope and inspiration pervade the project…’


Jonathan Butler

Mack Avenue Music Group/Artistry Music (release date: April 28, 2023)


What makes Ubuntu outstanding is that it doesn’t just feature Jonathan Butler, smooth jazz artist, but Jonathan Butler, smooth jazz artist who has returned to his roots and applied his craft to an expression of African sentiments, sounds, and rhythms. It’s the South African musician’s finest album to date.

The highlight of the album, and indeed of the spring season, is Butler’s duet with blues singer Keb’ Mo, “When Love Comes In.” Drawing on the nonviolent resistance philosophy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is a modern-day civil rights anthem with the zeal of “What’s Going On” and “A Change is Gonna Come.” Love is the answer in this song, and since love is in every one of us, every one of us is capable of contributing to the change we want to see in the world. An acoustic bonus track, “Our Voices Matter,” speaks directly to the need for putting love into action.

‘When Love Comes In,’ Jonathan Butler, with Ken’ Mo, from Ubuntu

‘Our Voice Matter,’ Jonathan Butler (vocals, acoustic guitar, percussion, a bonus track on Ubuntu

Indeed, the overall theme of Ubuntu—-a Nguni Bantu term meaning humanity—is the unity of humanity and the ability of love to overcome hatred and oppression. So although Ubuntu is not a gospel album per se, not in the traditional sense, anyway, messages of hope and inspiration pervade the project.

Mixed in with the lyrical selections are instrumentals, most strikingly the serene “Peace in Shelter.” As usual, Butler surrounds himself with a coterie of talented and versatile musicians who articulate his vision seamlessly. Multi-instrumentalist and album producer Marcus Miller delivers on bass, keys, tenor sax, bass clarinet, acoustic guitar—-basically everything but the kitchen sink. Stevie Wonder makes a cameo on harmonica on the opener, “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).”

‘Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You,” Jonathan Butler, with Stevie Wonder on harmonica, from Ubuntu

‘Rainbow Nation,’ Jonathan Butler, with Marcus Miller on bass, piano, keyboards, tenor sax, from Ubuntu

Given the African flavor of the album, the instrumental “Coming Home” might well be its theme song, and “Rainbow Nation” riffs on Mandela and Tutu’s vision for South Africa. Jonathan Butler may have traveled the world with his music, but as Ubuntu makes clear, his heart is in his homeland. A superb album from start to finish.

Picks: “When Love Comes In,” “Rainbow Nation,” “Our Voices Matter”


‘…a soul crooner with a flower-power heart and a spiritual soul…’


Ray Curenton

Imagination Fury Arts (release date: June 2, 2023)


If you haven’t experienced the music of Nashville, Tennnessee, singer-songwriter Ray Curenton, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Believer, Curenton’s third studio album, is his finest to date. It gave this listener the same eye-opening reaction that I had hearing for the first time J Moss’s V2 and Aaron Sledge’s Da Light, both released back in 2007. Expertly produced by Curenton and Brandon Adams with executive production that includes another excellent singer, Tim Dillinger, Believer is an earthen vessel of relatable lyrics, likable melodies, fresh and vibrant elements of hip hop, and an ever-shifting, never-derivative tone.

‘Profit,’ Ray Curenton, from Believer, a.k.a., The Last Shall Be The First

‘Stars,’ Ray Curenton, from Believer, a.k.a., The Last Shall Be The First

As on “Make it With You,” his hit and JGM Best Single of 2022 (and included on the album), Curenton is a soul crooner with a flower-power heart and a spiritual soul. And a socially-conscious mind. On his Bandcamp page, Curenton describes himself as a Black liberationist and cultural worker. His earnest efforts are on display here. For example, on “No Empires!” he joins April Rucker and Civil in a fist-raised declaration delivered by a generation stayed on freedom. “Profit” riffs on the album’s subtitle, The Last Shall Be the First, and Mark 8:36. Together, the trio are a young generation singing truth to power. This is how things ought to work, they argue, and in the end, the answers are pretty simple: love, faith, unity, understanding, equality. What Jesus said.

‘No Empires,’ Ray Curenton with April Rucker and Civil, from Believer, a.k.a., The Last Shall Be The First

‘Refuse + Strength, Ray Curenton, from Believer, a.k.a., The Last Shall Be The First

“Stars” follows a brief interstitial that complicates the album’s confident beginning with confessions of doubt. Whispery, acoustic, and soul-searching, and backed by guitar and violin, “Stars” gives witness to those confusing days when belief is hard to hold onto when “all I hear are lies,” and “I can’t see the stars at night.” “Whole (Heal Me)” is the resolution, a blind faith prayer for healing. It’s also a family affair; here, Curenton duets with his pretty-voiced sister Kweli Buckner. The undulating and introspective “Knowledge” possesses the most radio-friendly elements and the one most likely to be covered by other gospel artists.

These are not songs you are likely to hear in church, but if you can get beyond that, you’ll find Believer to be marvelously fresh, uplifting and, Ray Curenton hopes, healing.

Picks: “Make It With You,” “Stars,” “No Empires!,” “Knowledge”


‘…fresh, bright, pulsing with optimism…’


Bethany Music

Independent (release date: April 28, 2023)


Those who follow JGM know that Praise & Worship is not my favorite gospel subgenre, but when it’s done well, as it is on Bethany Music’s album, Live From New Orleans, I tip my hat in respect.

Recorded in May 2022 at the sixty-year-old church’s newly-planted New Orleans campus, the thirteen original songs are supplied by a talented team that includes worship leader BJ Putnam and superb singers such as Danielle Burns, Nick Day, and Charlin Neal (JGM interviewed Charlin back in 2016).

‘OMG,’ Bethany Music featuring BJ Putnam, from Live From New Orleans

Bethany Music blends the melodicism of Hillsong with the expansive and heartrending singing of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Fresh, bright, pulsing with optimism, well produced and orchestrated, Live From New Orleans is like an oratorio of contemporary songs, arrangements and expressions that follow one another in a seamless procession in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

‘Have My Heart Again,’ Bethany Music, from Live From New Orleans

Still, some parts deserve special mention. “OMG” is a gush of glee about the freedom experienced in salvation. “Glorified” has the regal stature of an old church anthem. Not the beloved Protestant hymn but a new song, “Holy Holy Holy” is a dramatic expression of awe in the presence of a God beautiful beyond measure. The equally affecting “Holy Ground” is an extended worship selection that settles the soul like musical melatonin. By the conclusion, the audience is singing along in rapturous harmony.

‘Pearl of Great Price,’ Bethany Music, from Live From New Orleans

“Have My Heart Again” is the album’s finest track, a love song to the Lord dressed up in a pretty pop ballad. Pop balladry is also in evidence on “Pearl of Great Price.” Taking for its text Matthew 13:45-46, it declares how much one would spend just to be a disciple.

Live From New Orleans delivers marvelous singing, well-written songs, professional musicians, and all of it expertly curated. It’s a worship experience in a jewel case.

Picks: “Have My Heart Again,” “Holy Holy Holy,” “Just One Drop”

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