Lay Down This World ; Hymns And Spirituals
Monday, January 21, 2013
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
A surprisingly successful album from an empathic trio led by pianist Pamela York. Who said the Devil has all the best tunes?
“Lay Down This World: Hymns And Spirituals”
(Jazzful Heart Music JHM080602)
Canadian born pianist Pamela York, originally from Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Colombia is now based in Houston, Texas following studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduating from Berklee in 1991 she completed a Masters at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville under the tutorship of Donald Brown. It was also at this time that she married her husband, Adam York.
York then moved to San Diego, California and it was there that she made her recording début in 2000 with the release of “Blue York”, an album made with the high profile rhythm team of bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton.
A further change of location to Houston was followed by the birth of York’s daughter Anna Katherine in 2003 and it was not until 2006 that she returned to the recording studio to deliver her second album “The Way of Time”. This record featured her regular working trio of bassist Lynn Seaton (another Jeff Hamilton associate) and drummer Sebastian Whittaker plus guitarist Mike Wheeler. With its theme of time passing the record placed a greater emphasis on original material and was a considerable critical success.
Classically trained and a frequent jazz piano competition award winner York describes her style as having “one foot in the tradition and one in the future”. Her statement is borne out by her latest release “Lay Down This World” (2012) an album that takes a selection of hymns and gospel tunes, most of them credited as being “traditional”, and explores them in a thoroughly contemporary context in the company of Seaton and Whittaker. Andre Hayward adds the ripe sound of his trombone to two of the album’s eleven tracks.
The album commences with the York trio’s take on Martin Luther’s “ A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and quickly sets out the triumvirate’s jazz credentials. York is a fluent and gifted improviser and the interaction between the three members of the group instinctive and empathic. Whittaker’s bright and colourful drumming is a consistent source of interest and Seaton a solid grounding presence.
York does more than merely “jazz things up”. Her quietly audacious arrangement of the traditional tune “Shout On” (which subsequently became “I Know That My Redeemer Lives – Glory Hallelujah!” following the addition of words by Samuel Medley) adds an infectious reggae inflection. It sounds as if it shouldn’t work and yet it does – brilliantly. York’s playing around the beat is consistently bright and inventive and Seaton emerges from the shadows to deliver a wonderfully dexterous upper register bass solo.
The shimmer of percussion introduces the hymn tune “Be Thou My Vision” (sometimes known as “Lord Of All Hopefulness” after its opening line). Here the trio offer a more reflective approach to this spiritual music. York plays things comparatively straight with the real jazz content coming from Seaton’s deeply resonant bass undertow and beautifully articulated solo. Whittaker’s delightfully understated brushwork is perfect throughout.
Written by Joseph Gilmore and William Bradbury “He Leadeth Me” invokes a genuine gospel feel with Whittaker’s subtle grooves providing just the right amount of propulsion as York solos expansively.
Andre Hayward’s trombone adds a New Orleans feel to York’s arrangement of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”. Here the mood is celebratory with Hayward’s fruity trombone taking the first solo followed by York at the piano. Whittaker’s playing is colourful and good humoured and he sounds as if he’s having a ball on an extended drum break.
Seaton’s unaccompanied bass introduces the gently lyrical, gospel tinged “Were You There?”, a beautifully played piano/double bass duet.
After this pause for reflection comes “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me”, the fan-faring introduction featuring Seaton making rare use of the bow. The piece then settles down into a languidly strutting gospel blues with tastefully exuberant playing from York and a typically excellent Seaton bass solo.
“My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less”, by Richard Mote and William Bradbury (again) sees the trio in more meditative mood with sombre piano chords, a dark rich bass undertow and delightfully delicate brushwork. Like all the quieter pieces on the album its actually rather lovely.
“Ain’t-A That Good News!” is as joyous and celebratory as the title suggests with the trio fairly romping through the piece with a woozily bowed solo from Seaton and an effervescent solo drum passage from Whittaker. Following this bit of enjoyable light heartedness York restores the album’s spiritual feel with a stately solo piano reading of “Deep River”.
The album then closes on an upbeat note with the return of Hayward for a bluesy arrangement of “Soon I will Be Done” with the trombone prominent in the mix throughout.
Produced by York and engineered by Todd Hulslander and Allen Corneau the sound quality on “Lay Down This World” is excellent throughout with York’s playing particularly well captured. She has a supreme lightness of touch at the piano, can operate in a variety of jazz styles and has a real improviser’s sensibility. I was also hugely impressed by Seaton and Whittaker, like York new names to me, and it quickly became apparent that this is a real working trio with a genuine empathic rapport. Hayward’s cameo appearances are well judged, two appearances are about right and both are hugely enjoyable. Anything more would detract attention too much away from the core trio.
With its glossy packaging and religious theme I’ll admit that I was fully prepared not to like this album (I’m no Richard Dawkins but I’m not exactly a believer either). Musically I was afraid that it would all be rather bland but although there’s nothing here to frighten the horses the trio’s jazz capabilities ensure that there is plenty to enjoy and that the music remains interesting throughout despite the familiarity of many of the themes. I suspect that it’s a record I may actually find myself returning to on a surprisingly regular basis.
Who said the Devil has all the best tunes?
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