Pamela York's CD Lay Down This World: Hymns And Spirituals is a beautiful example of a jazz recording making the case for the connection between playing music and spirituality. Leading a trio that includes Lynn Seaton on bass and Sebastian Whittaker on drums, with Houston trombonist Andre Hayward guesting on two tracks, York presents 11 re-harmonized and re-imagined hymns and spirituals. The resulting music is not only a joy to listen to, but illuminates the transcendence musicians experience when they are playing music.
Lay Down This Groove
Lay Down This World is York's third CD and the second featuring the rhythm section of Seaton and Whittaker. Her previous CDs, Blue York and Way Of Time, each included one hymn or spiritual.
"People really gravitated toward (those songs)," says York. "I didn't expect such a positive response."
Many of the arrangements on Lay Down This World began as preludes or offerings York played during church services. Bringing these pre-20th century hymns and spirituals into the modern musical age was not an easy task.
"They're written many of them in four-part harmony," York explains. "Like how they would appear in a hymnal to be sung. And just to make them into contemporary jazz changes…how was I gonna do that? And how was I going to improvise on these new progressions?"
"I had played (these tunes) in a church setting, but never really on my own with my own chord changes and using them as a vehicle for my improv. So that was really tricky, especially on the first track."
That first track is a driving version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," with its familiar melody buoyed by a strong, Afro-Cuban groove.
"When I was first playing around with it," says York of that particular hymn, "I felt like it really wanted to be in 6/8 time. I felt like it really propelled itself in kind of Afro-Cuban feel."
York's unique approach to groove continues on the CD's second track, "I Know That My Redeemer Lives — Glory, Hallelujah!" which is anchored in a reggae rhythm.
"I had been listening to the Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander," says York. "Starting it off with that reggae bass line in the left hand, and then having Sebastian come in…it felt natural. Monty Alexander is somebody I've been listening to for many years. I just took that sound and kind of ran with it."
Houston-born Whittaker's tasty Sly-like drum fills are perfect for this particular track.
"We've been playing together for about 10 years," says York of Whittaker. "I think a lot of people know him as a 'traditional' player. But when he plays a contemporary groove it's just so solid."
"He's like a kid on Christmas morning at the drum set," she adds. "Every gig, every session, he just brings 100 per cent . . . 110 percent!"
York decided to perform the spiritual "Deep River" as a solo, allowing the music "to be inspired by the instrument I was playing."
"As I was practicing it and re-harmonizing it," says York. "There were just certain spots in the melody I knew I had to stretch on. I liked the freedom of doing it as a solo."
"One thing that happened when I was playing, when I played the melody the very last time, I played the melody very low on the piano. Of course, it is kind of a play on the word 'deep.' I really liked the way it sounded, kind of low and sparse on the piano. Just to end it like that was very satisfying."
More than just the notes
Music, be it classical, rock and roll, or jazz, has always maintained a power to transcend religious dogma and literalism and provide listeners with (dare I say it?) a spiritual experience. Lay Down This World is definitely a recording that will appeal to people of all faiths, and maybe even a few doubters here and there.
"I didn't grow up going to church," says York. "I wasn't raised in any particular denomination or anything. (But) music stirred up something in me…you feel like, 'Wow, there's something greater than me out there.'"
"A lot of jazz musicians will tell you they're coming out of the church," York continues. "They heard their grandmother play the organ, they had it from a really early age. Not so with me. But I do feel that music satisfies me in a way that's hard to describe to people who aren't touched by music."
"I even find that when I practice and have had a satisfying practice session at the piano, I leave very fulfilled and actually am a better and nicer mother to my children (laughs). It actually is that important to me to have that outlet. And if I don't do it, I'm more of a frustrated person."
York agrees that music offers a key to transcendence not only for the listener, but also for those who play it.
"In many different ways," she says. "It's more than just the notes."
Pamela York's CD Lay Down This World: Hymns And Spirituals is available November 13 from Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby.
(photo by Shannon Mucha)