Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson belongs to a select number of singers who as soon as their first name is evoked are immediately known to a wider public. Aretha [Franklin] would be another such figure and this selection of sixteen songs from a much larger original choice numbering fifty-eight from live NBC television performances and previously available on DVD in the UK. What is truly interesting about this music is that, rather than be paired with a traditional gospel outfit, or even a larger jazz ensemble, Jackson is accompanied by a pared down quintet comprising the ace rhythm section of drummer Shelly Manne, bassist Red Mitchell and guitarist Barney Kessel. Alternating on keyboards are Edward Robinson and Louise Weaver who operate in tandem, or separately on organ and piano.
Pure gospel music can sometimes come across to the neophyte as one-dimensional and too preachy, but here the sound and tempo is varied, and the lyrics do not inhibit listening enjoyment. How would Mahalia Jackson have sounded in a secular R & B context? On the wonderful, early soul feel to, Somebody bigger than you and I’, we have the faintest of glimpses of what might have been had Jackson crossed the musical tracks and devoted herself to the secular lyrics of soul music. As a parallel, the pop tune, ‘I believe’, is imbued with a church-laden groove complete with both organ and piano. Sporting fans will easily succumb to the sumptuous rendition of what has become a football anthem, ‘You’ll never walk alone’.
The rhythm section let off steam and provide a grooving backbeat to, My Lord and I’, with Kessel in particular laying down some righteously rocking guitar licks whereas the piano plays the main theme on, ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho’, a number that Grant Green memorably covered for Blue Note back in the 1960s. If the quartet are rousing on, ‘Highway up to heaven’, then they are equally moody and down tempo on, ‘Lord don’t move the mountain’.
For devotees of more traditional gospel, ‘I asked the Lord’, fits the bill admirably with just piano to accompany Mahalia’s towering voice. The opener, an improvised take on, ‘The Lord’s prayer’, is testimony to the powerful range that Jackson possessed and she was capable of singing in multiple idioms. A six page commentary by Davin Seay provides useful context. A pity there are no further photos of Mahalia, or band members.