Even before Ray Charles blended gospel music and American pop, pianist-composer Horace Silver had composed and recorded “The Preacher,” followed in short order by the jubilant, infectious sounds of gospel music on jazz recordings by fellow bandleaders drummer Art Blakey (”Moanin'”), saxophonist Cannonball Adderley (”'Dis Here”), and bassist Charles Mingus (”Better Git It In Your Soul”). The undiluted source music, moreover, was acquiring unprecedented attention among jazz purists, culminating in a widely covered appearance by gospel's reigning diva, Mahalia Jackson, at the Newport Jazz Festival (Live At Newport, Columbia 1958).
Although the line between gospel and pop “soul” music has since become faint if not undetectable (sometimes coming down to the substitution of the word “Jesus” for “baby”), the authentic tradition remains alive and well in the music of LD Frazier.
Chances are you've seen or heard Frazier even if the name doesn't register. Born in Cleveland but a New Yorker for most of his life, Frazier has for the past four decades brought the joyful sounds of gospel to Gotham while supplementing his income with occasional commercial jingles and photo shoots (he even made a cameo appearance with Bette Midler in 1979's The Rose).
Although Frazier's powerful voice and formidable piano chops make him a potent “self-contained” act, when I first caught him live at St. Peter's Jazz Vespers in the late 1970s he was employing a rhythm section including the late bassist Earl May. St. Peter's, the “jazz church,” comprises the basement level of one of the most familiar shapes in the Manhattan skyline—the Citicorp Building—and on this Sunday afternoon the spirit must have been felt all the way to the top of the skyscraper's slanted roof serving as the church's steeple.
That spirit also resonates as far as Egypt and England, just two of the countries to which Frazier annually brings his musical gospel. The present recording captures the singer during an “informal” concert in England, and in the company of some top British musicians along with a spirited yet cohesive chorus. The sympathetic arrangements by Scott Stroman provide just enough structure without hampering either the heartfelt emotions of the chorus or the swinging piano and stirring voice and inspired singing of the featured performer.
Frazier's voice is, in itself, an instrument of uncommon power, resilience and beauty, no less sterling now than when I first heard it. It has more in common with the jubilant clarity and elocution of authoritative female conveyers of the good news—Mahalia, Sister Wynona Carr, Judy Clay—than with the throaty and raspy male “singing preachers” out of the Rev. C.L. Franklin Sanctified tradition. He doesn't require but nevertheless happily includes other instrumentalists during his concerts, especially if they're jazz musicians willing to travel with him on the gospel mainstream rather than some of the branches of “contemporary Christian music,” with its assorted synthesizers, electric bass and distorted guitar sounds, and pronounced percussive clutter.
“Frazier's voice is, in itself, an instrument of uncommon power, resilience and beauty, no less sterling now than...30 years ago.”
The program on I Was There When The Spirit Came consists of fifteen selections—classic gospel songs, an original Frazier composition, and some surprises from the popular repertory past and present. Elisha Hoffman's ever-fresh setting of Psalm 29, “Glory To His Name,” serves as the session's call to worship while establishing Frazier's manner of cutting right to the chase: a piano introduction of no more than four bars, then some spirited testifying by the featured performer, followed by vigorous and animated call- response interaction between soloist and chorus.
Next is a Frazier original, “His Love Keeps Me In A Wonderful Kind Of A Way,” that's a ballad yet, as is the case with each selection, maintains an unshakeable groove—in this case, an implied but no less infectious triple meter. The soloist's rich voice (tenor in range, yet so broad and inviting as to have a big, baritone effect) alternately seduces and impels the listener to accept first its diagnosis of malaise and second its prescription of a cure in the form of a surefire spiritual antidepressant.
It wasn't long ago that this writer (a preacher's kid, but not by choice) cringed at having to return to the sentimental refrains of “In The Garden,” that inescapable musical oasis occupying the middle of countless Protestant hymnals. Frazier, assisted by a scintillating choral arrangement, is able to wring from the song all of its sweet juices while cutting any cloying aftertaste with an implied but unmistakable eight-beats-to-the- bar rhythmic feel. It's a revisionary gem, as likely to be appreciated by anyone new to the song as those who may feel they've been over-exposed to it.
The implied yet kinetic R&B, or “boogie,” beat remains in place for Cora Martin's rousing “He'll Wash You Whiter Than Snow,” on which the singer first catches the listener's attention by singing a distinctively ungospel-like major 7th, then exhorts his communicants to respond during a “stop-time chorus,” aided by some percussive fireworks supplied by drummer Patrick Levett.
Billy Guy's “Wake Me, Shake Me” is a dual-tempo workout that begins as unadulterated and contagious (but unforced) funk before Frazier comes to a midstream drop-dead stop, then takes the song into jump-jazz jubilee territory for the driving, resounding “out” chorus. To this exuberant but unsustainable pace, Kris Kristofferson's “One Day At A Time,” as performed with grace and determination by Frazier, offers a moment for respite and the marshaling of newfound energies.
For this listener, the program's biggest surprise is the inclusion of Irving Berlin's “Always,” a bona fide evergreen that becomes a revelatory experience. Not only does Frazier's reading make the song a deeply felt and appropriate dialogue of the soul with its maker but it invites younger generations to engage with a timeless melody and lyric, one (as I've discovered when doing singalongs in retirement homes) that is firmly implanted in senior citizens' consciousness as few other popular songs. The singer-pianist's displacement of familiar accents refreshes the indelible tune while convincingly making the case that “always” can easily become a relative term, a mere adverb of degree, unless the singer “means” it, about which Frazier's emphatic elocution leaves no doubt.
As the penultimate number on the program, Charles Tindley's reassuring “We'll Understand It Better By And By” has Frazier laying back on the time—slipping in flatted thirds and singing perfectly placed quarter tones—while leaving enough of an opening for the spirit to make its entrance. Small wonder, then, that the closer is “I Was There When The Spirit Came,” Doris Akers' moving testimony that never ceases to produce delight and sheer wonder when sung by a storyteller capable of convincing us he actually was there.
Look hard, but it's doubtful there's a recording session that bears a more truthful title or better- supported claim than this one.