Review by Brad Walseth
Chicago's own Willie Pickens is a true phenomenon. One of the highlights of last year's Jazz Fest was seeing the master pianist joyously and humbly entertaining the crowd with his exciting jazz settings of religious music. I've finally gotten ahold of Mr. Pickens' 2006 double release — Jazz Spirit, Volumes 1 & 2 (Southport), just in time for the holiday season and would highly recommend jazz fans do the same.
Featuring the 75-year-young Mr. Pickens' trademark piano stylings, which combine jazz, gospel, blues and hymns in an exciting and delightful montage, along with a guest list of some of the finest musicians in Chicago. Bassists Marlene Rosenberg, Larry Gray and Rob Amster and drummers Kobie Watkins and Robert Shy hold down the low end in various combinations throughout, while top front-line players Ari Brown and Pat Mallinger fill the sax position. Trumpet/ flugelhorn standout Tito Carillo adds his brilliance, while Pickens' daughter Bethany, duets with her father on two numbers. Recorded by Joanie Pallato and Todd Carter and produced by Pallatto and Bradley Parker-Sparrow, the two CDs captures Pickens' genius well.
Ranging from African American Spirituals like "Down by the Riverside" and "Wade in the Water" to European canonical hymns like "A Mighty Fortress" and "O Lord You"Are My God and King" to even the innocent "Jesus Loves Me" Pickens' astounding arrangements move effortlessly from peacefulness to rollicking. The players were selected specifically for each number and this care shows in the results. Brown adds his exceptionally blusey growl to "Let Us Break Bread Together," which opens Volume 1 in sterling manner, while young Pat Mallinger shows why he is one of the bright young lions to keep and eye on with his exemplary work on such numbers as the straight-ahead "Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive." Meanwhile Carillo, a player with a gift to elicit chills with his golden tone, shines on the Latin-tinged "Fairest Lord Jesus," and "O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High."
Mr. Pickens also adds some incredible solo piano versions that display fully his gift of intelligence, creativity and spirituality. All the pieces recorded grew out of the Hyde Park Union Church sacred jazz concert series, and we can be grateful to the church and Mr. Pickens for these wonderful songs. A truly humble, kind, honest and spiritual person with incredible talent, we here in Chicago are fortunate to have a beautiful soul such as Willie Pickens to appreciate.