Saturday, October 20, 2007

New Route Home

New Route Home
Morris Robinson fuses old and new.

(5/5 stars)

by LaTonya Taylor

After several casual performances at friends' weddings, Morris Robinson slowly became convinced that God intended his bright, sonorous basso profundo for more. He pursued a career in opera, and, within remarkably few years, garnered comparisons to Paul Robeson and engagements with the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Lyric Opera.

Going Home (Decca/Universal) connects gospel to opera through spirituals. The result is respectfully traditional yet confidently contemporary. "Go Down, Moses" is a shining example. A brooding orchestral opening (courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) gives way to an urgent, declamatory chorus. The intensity builds as Robinson adds Hebrew lyrics, accenting the song's dual reference to enslaved Africans and the Israelites of Exodus.

Robinson's elegant rendering of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" captures the themes of God's sovereignty and human dignity characteristic of spirituals (though it's technically too new to be considered a spiritual in the classical sense).

Though each song retains its connection to the tradition of spirituals, the album includes several genres. "Walk With Me" is a mellow, jazzy interpretation of a Sunday morning favorite. Cyrus Chestnut's rolling jazz piano brings gospel-infused consistency to "Go, Tell It On the Mountain."

"Going Home" refers both to Morrison's return to his gospel roots and to ultimate hope. The album also includes a distinctively churchy "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" (hinting at Robinson's roots as a Baptist preacher's son) and an emotive "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

Paul Robeson wrote in his 1958 autobiography: "The great, soaring gospels we love are merely sermons that are sung." Almost 50 years later, Robinson's Going Home offers a clear recounting of the gospel. Many contemporary gospel albums assume the listener's familiarity with the Christian faith, and thus emphasize themes of celebration, gratitude, and perseverance. But Robinson's sequential grouping of "Sister Mary," "Take My Mother Home," "Were You There," and "He Looked Beyond My Faults" proclaims the gospel with unique vocal and thematic clarity.

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