march 2012

Bob Marovich's Gospel Picks

sapp'...sharing how I got through it...'
Marvin Sapp
Verity Records
Available at

Marvin Sapp's ninth solo CD, I Win, could have easily been named for his current single, "My Testimony." The live recording has the performance elements of a cathartic testimony/lesson from a man who learned from experience that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Assessing Sapp's life by the Stellar Awards, hit records and accolades the Michigan-based singer and church founder has assembled over the past several years, one could conclude that he is on top of the world. His response would perhaps be that oft-cited line: "you don't know my story."

Indeed. The pain of losing his father Henry Lewis Sapp, Jr., musical mentor L. Craig Tyson (co-founder of Tyscot Records) and spiritual mentor Bishop William Abney within 90 days birthed Sapp's spontaneous and smash 2008 hit, "Never Would Have Made It." Then Sapp's wife MaLinda died of colon cancer in 2010.

Since I Win, recorded live at Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, is Pastor Sapp's first CD since MaLinda died. No surprise, then, that triumph over pain through faith is a paramount theme. Overcoming is the explicit message on the conversational title track, written and recorded originally by Brittney Wright.  On the funky mid-tempo "Never," Sapp sings that in spite of it all, he was never forsaken.

Although a handful of songs on I Win come from the pens of emerging songwriters, a special treat is the medley of classic church hymns and gospel songs that Sapp sings in a slow reflective style. Standing flatfooted and lifting the hymns spontaneously, Sapp asks, "Y'all, can we keep singing these songs in the church?" You can guess the response.

But the autobiographical "My Testimony" steals the show. In an emotionally charged but controlled voice and slow tempo, Sapp sings that he's "so glad I made it...I could have lost my mind but I made it through."

"It is a transparent, introspective look at what I came through and how, in the midst of it all, I still maintained and am maintaining my faith," Sapp said of "My Testimony," which he co-wrote with Aaron Lindsey. "It is about how I realized that if it had not been for God being there in the midst of everything, I would have been taken out. 'My Testimony' is more about me sharing how I got through it, not just that I got through it."

The final two selections are energetic mid-tempo R&B infused pieces, but after "My Testimony," it's doxology.

Picks: "My Testimony," "I Win."


praise'...deliciously sweet harmonies'
Voices of Praise
Voices of Praise
Available at iTunes

Organized in 2000 by Delmark Joseph out of the First Wesleyan Church of Brooklyn, Voices of Praise is now a sextette that represents several different churches and whose members write original songs. I Give My All is the group's new CD.

What's immediately notable about Voices of Praise is its deliciously sweet harmonies. The blend is bright and fresh-faced, like Forever Jones or the Irish pop group the Corrs. Old-schoolers like me hear something of the folk group the Seekers in the Voices of Praise's crisp tonality. Their harmonies are so tight a thin razor could not fit between the notes.

The album's songs come from the pens of group members, with Marisa Joseph contributing the album's two finest tracks, "Owe It All" and "I Give All of Me." Both are representative of the group's CCM-inflected pop melodies with contemporary gospel underlayment and a smidgen of Smallwood in their semi-classical flourishes. Despite the uncomplicated melodies--"The Heart of the Father" is as straightforward as it gets--I Give My All suggests the group has had classical music training. Bobby Soverall's solo piano variation on "I Give All of Me" is ample testimony to that.

The lyrics are almost uniformly about praise and adoration, though "The Heart of the Father" and "My Word" find the soul struggling for salvation in times of trouble.

While the first few tracks on I Give My All are the strongest, with the light Caribbean beat of "My Strength" setting the mood, all of the songs and performances on the album are as likely to please members of liturgical churches as those who prefer more demonstrative worship services.

Picks: "Owe It All," "I Give All of Me."


hairston'...more punch than a container load of Red Bull...'
J.J. Hairston & Youthful Praise
Light Records/Entertainment One (2012)

It's hard to be more musically energetic than J.J. Hairston & Youthful Praise. Their high-octane, intense and dramatic full-throated singing packs more punch than a container load of Red Bull.

On the group's latest CD, After This, the choir blends its vocal enthusiasm with strong melodies, hard-hitting musicianship and a throbbing vibe that moves relentlessly from one track to another. The listener gets a vicarious feel of the live recording experience.

Recorded at the First Cathedral Church in Bloomfield, Connecticut, where Hairston has, until recently, served as minister of music, After This is a star-studded package. It features guest appearances by artists such as Tye Tribbett, LaShun Pace, Lisa Knowles, Bishop Hezekiah Walker and Pastor John P. Kee-two pioneers in the leader-ensemble variety of contemporary gospel choir-and James Fortune who, with Hairston, is Walker and Kee: The Next Generation.

Despite the top-shelf guest lineup, the Youthful Praise bench has some strong soloists, as evidenced by Tiffany Andrews-Woodside's gut-wrenching hard singing on the high-octane "My King" and Jenifer Johnson's evangelistic lead on the up-tempo "Reap." Melissa Bell contributes a strong duet with Hairston on "The Victor."

Most of the songs come from Hairston's pen and were inspired by a series of sermons by Bishop T.D. Jakes. The current single, "After This," delivers its message of hope with a perky melody, strong vocals and a driving refrain. "You" is another Hairston composition with a fine melody and bracing beat. Ashmont Hill member Phil Thompson's "Love Lifted Me," featuring Tye Tribbett, is equally melodic and intense, and in some respects more memorable than "After This" for its lyric repetition.

Hairston and Youthful Praise come from the rich musical lineage of Bishop JC and Lady Gloria White. Back in the day, the Whites had their own version of YP, called the Institutional COGIC Youth Choir. The choir's "Stretch Out" was just as bold musically as YP. "Reap," with its churchy feel, is aurally reminiscent of the earlier group.

After This is J.J. Hairston & Youthful Praise's finest recorded work to date.

Picks: "After This," "Love Lifted Me," "The Blood."


andrea helmsSunday Best finalist's powerful debut
Andrea Helms
Music World Gospel
Available at

Moving Forward is the seven-track debut CD of BET Sunday Best Season 4 first runner-up Andrea Helms. Produced by H. Doobie Powell and released earlier this month, the album is a compilation of the contemporary gospel and P&W songs that carried Helms to the finals of the popular television program.

Helms' version of Mary Mary's "Yesterday" is the album's crowning achievement because it features her soulful emotionality and arsenal of blue notes in ways the other songs do not. Walter Hawkins' "Changed" runs a strong second, but not because Helms tries to emulate Tremaine's iconic vocals; instead, she glazes her smooth and even tones onto the track. She also incorporates her personal testimony into the selection. As a child, the singer was told she would never walk or talk, "oh, but my God had a bigger plan for me!" Helms should consider recording a whole album of Hawkins classics.

The title track sounds like a motivational selection and it is, but not in the cliché "just do it" manner. On this R&B-juiced piece, written by Ricardo Sanchez during the Sunday Best finale, Helms sings that she is moving first towards God in discipleship. That, in turn, propels her life forward.

On Richard Smallwood's "I Love the Lord," Helms interpolates some of the late Whitney Houston's playful vocal jumps but what sells the song are the quiet moments in between, when she sings with a soft purr. Helms' tranquil warble gives proof of her classical vocal training.

Picks: "Yesterday."


hurdEncouraging more men to embrace the act of worship
Stephen Hurd
Hurd the Word
Available at

O That Men Would Worship is urban P&W minister Stephen Hurd's sixth CD but his first for his own label, Hurd the Word.

The album is more than an assembly of songs. It represents Hurd's attempt to encourage more men to embrace the act of worship. "My goal," Hurd says, "is to get men, and especially men of color, to realize that worship is not a feminine sport. I think when men see other men worship, it gives them freedom to worship without feeling emasculated."

There's nothing emasculating on O That Men Would Worship. Recorded at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, where Hurd is minister of music, the album features Jason Nelson, Anthony Evans and Minister Deonte Gray. It also features a male sextet that, on the concluding track, "Victory," forms complex harmonies in the style of Take 6. It would have been great to hear more of them on the project. The only females in front of the microphones belong to the mixed vocal group Extol, which backs Hurd & Company on many of the selections.

The songs range from energetic ("Let's Celebrate") to balladic (the very fine "Grace") to quintessentially urban P&W with its uncomplicated, feel-good vibe ("When I Worship," "It's Working For Your Good"). The unifying strand is the incitement to worship but also to let the healing begin. On "The Healing Prayer" and "Healed by the Power," Hurd transforms the live recording program into a chance to free the male participants from the shackles of past hurts and empower them to "make a difference wherever your feet go."

The apex of the program is "You Are Holy," a beautiful P&W piece suited to Sunday worship service. The title track is similarly gentle, written as a hymn in lyric structure and melodic content.

Although it is a good chance that Stephen Hurd was preaching to the converted at the live recording, O That Men Would Worship has plenty of testosterone to fulfill Hurd's objective among the larger listening audience.

Picks: "You Are Holy"


silence‘…peppermint candy for the soul…’

Songs That Sing You to Silence may well be the prettiest and most relaxing CD you hear all year.

Designed as a meditative means to bring one to an inner place of worship, the album is the product of a South African quintet that blends jazz, classical and even Portugese-influenced musicianship. Vocalists Carrol Hall and Danellia Daniels grew up as pals in Apartheid-plagued South Africa. They combine their voices with guitar, double bass, piano and drums to do the conjuring.

Hall is a church musician and educator; bassist Andreas Kappen is a member of South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic; Pianist Melvin Peters has been featured on several jazz and gospel recordings, the most recent being with the jazz group, Quattro Fusion. He is also music director at St. Pauls Church, Durban, and an active member of the Royal Schools of Church Music. The drummer, Shaun Herbert, is a well-known sound engineer working out of the Playhouse Theatre in Durban, South Africa. Daniels is chaplain and manager of the YMCA in KwaZulu Natal.

The musicians combined their talents in the studio for two days last October. The result is Songs that Sing You to Silence.

“The idea of jazz as meditative music, as singing you to silence,” Hall says, “I heard first from Melvin as he played for one of the combined Good Friday services in Durban that hosts tens of thousands of pilgrims, each Easter.”

The album evokes the hypnotic and contemplative music of Jacques Berthier and Taize'--the group covers three of Berthier’s compositions--but it is the Portugese-flavored pieces that garner the most attention. Carrol Hall’s “God is With Us” and “All Shall Be Well” channels famed fado singers Cesaria Evora and Amalia Rodrigues in their smoky, brooding beauty. Pianist Peters is brilliant throughout the album and provides an especially exquisite solo on “I Am Because You Are.”

Listening to the quintet’s instrumental version of the Zulu Kyrie stirs up some of the same moving emotions that accompany listening to a concert spiritual. Daniels' version of “Ukuthula--Peace, Perfect Peace” is mesmerizing.

Hall and Daniels duet on the mantra-like “Jesus Remember Me,” from the Taize' tradition, but only at the song’s conclusion. This piece would have been even stronger had they started with solo voice, moved to duet and concluded with a mixed quartet or choral voicing, as Berthier's piece is most penetrating when lavished with four-part harmony.

Songs That Sing You to Silence does what it set out to do: put you in such a state of tranquil reflection that when the CD stops spinning, you feel as if you’ve been transported to a quiet, sacred space where all that is present is divine relationship with the Most High. It is peppermint candy for the soul.

Picks: “God is With Us,” “All Shall Be Well.”

marovichBob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer, and author. In its seventh season, Bob's "Gospel Memories" program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3:00 to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago's WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard at Bob is also editor of The Black Gospel Blog


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