The Louisville Orchestra is going gospel! At least for this Saturday night, when director Teddy Abrams welcomes the 100-voice St. Stephen Baptist Church Choir to the Whitney Hall stage. The concert is billed as “Gospel at the Symphony,” but it’s pretty obvious Abrams is hoping for something more than a nice visit. Maybe spontaneous combustion.
Also on the bill is organist Cory Henry, who has branched out in a myriad of musical directions after coming up in the gospel music tradition.
Orchestra violist Evan Vicic, for one, says he can’t wait.
“I think it’s going to be spectacular,” Vicic said. “The choir at St. Stephen is amazing. We did a concert at their church a few years ago, and I’ve played a couple other gigs there, and their choir is just show-stopping.”
Anyone surprised that a classical string player is talking about gigs he’s played, and describing a church choir as “show-stopping,” just hasn’t been hanging out with the right orchestra. Youthful conductor Abrams has assembled an ever-more youthful cast of players, and leads his ensemble off in ever-more diverse directions — in search of new performers and new music to champion. Saturday’s gospel show is Part 1 of the orchestra’s annual Festival of American Music, with Part 2 slated for March 14, with a program leading into entirely different genres.
“In this performance we are celebrating Black gospel music in particular,” Abrams said. “But the broader genre of this style of music is a reflection of how diverse cultures have a magnetic power to influence each other and generate new forms.”
The director seems to be hoping the “magnetic powers” of choir and orchestra will produce some kind of special force-field.
“If you’ve ever been to services at St. Stephen, you know how spectacular their choir is, and how critical music is to worship and prayer at the church,” Abrams said. “The very special element in these concerts is that almost all of our orchestrations have been built just for this occasion. These will be world premiere versions of these songs.”
And who knows what will happen?
Vicic is expecting electricity from the start when Cory Henry leads off the show. The Brooklyn-based star seems to be able to cluster players and singers around his Hammond B3 organ … and cook.
“He was in this band called Snarky Puppy, and I’ve listened to them for years,” Vicic said. “The keyboard playing is just unbelievable. So I can’t wait to see what he does with us.”
Getting Out And About
One of the first things Teddy Abrams did when he arrived in Louisville four years ago was get out and about in the city, listening for unique musical voices.
Singer/composer Jason Clayborn, who will perform in Saturday’s gospel show, remembers meeting Abrams at St. Stephen.
“For some of our Wednesday night Bible studies, and Sunday services, we’d be rocking and I would see this curly-haired white guy showing up — before anyone in the city knew who he was. He came up and introduced himself, and said, ‘Hi, I’m Teddy Abrams. I’m new in the city, and I love your music and would love for you all to do some stuff with me.’”
“I said, ‘Cool, man, just let us know,’” recalls Clayborn. “I gave him my number — and then came to find out he’s the director of the Louisville Orchestra!”
Those visits led to a performance by the orchestra at St. Stephen Church, and a number of “gigs” for Clayborn and others with Abrams, including a Fourth of July celebration concert at Waterfront Park. Abrams also called on St. Stephen’s pastor Rev. Kevin Cosby to narrate Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”
‘Ain’t Goin To Let Nobody Turn Me Around’
A first thought of gospel music for many might be old time spirituals. But Kevin James, who is in his 33rd year as a minister of music at St. Stephen, says he has chosen a mixture of traditional and newer gospel songs for the program.
“Just like we do for church on Sunday, we try to have a mixture of different types of songs, because our congregation is interested in all different kinds of music,” James said. “Maestro Teddy and I have gone over the scores and we are working out how the conducting will work best for him on stage. I might be there to just kind of cue the choir.”
A couple of the newer gospel songs for the program include James’ own “Worthy of All the Praise,” and the Richard Smallwood hit, “Anthem of Praise.”
But “Ain’t Goin to Let Nobody Turn Me Around” is definitely an old, old song. It’s origins are lost in time, but the song carries a history. It was first recorded in 1924 by the Dixie Jubilee Singers, and appears in the 1927 songbook “Forty Negro Spirituals.”
Then “Ain’t Goin to Let Nobody Turn Me Around” marched into history in the Civil Rights movement.
In the summer of 1962, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy taught the song to folks assembled at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in Albany, Georgia. It was the night before a planned mass demonstration. Many knew they would be arrested in the march the next day. That night the old song took on a new lyric: “Ain’t goin to let no jailhouse turn me around.”
But gospel music is not all tough tests and grim determination.
Not at all, Jason Clayborn said. “Gospel is the good news. It’s spreading the good news of God’s love. Taking life’s experiences and the word of God, and working them into music that helps someone through their day.”
For this show, arranger Andre Wilson says he did not begin with published sheet music.
“I found a video of a small church choir doing a simple version, and just winged it from there,” says Wilson, a teacher at Johnson Middle School. Wilson builds the song through the choir, the orchestra, and the soloists. “So it’s kind of my own version, with my own harmonies.”
We don’t have it broken down to which soloists sing on which songs, but several who will take a turn in the spotlight include Carol Kirby Green, Niyah Brown, Brian Bausley and Patricia Mathison.
The choir and the orchestra will also perform the gospel part of the program in a free concert at 6 PM on Sunday, Feb. 23, at St. Stephen Church, 1018 S. 15th St.
Master Henry — First One To The Organ Bench
Cory Henry came up in the gospel church tradition. At 32, he’s finding his own musical style, as did such famous talents as Aretha Franklin, Kanye West, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke and Wynton Marsalis.
In a video that’s kind of like a family home movie, Henry traces his career to growing up in the Unity Temple church, in Brooklyn. Playing as fast as he can.
Not “fast” as in speed — though he can fly on keyboard — but “fast” as in quickest to get to an open bench at the organ. And fast to catch on.
“They’d start singing and you’d just have to play,” Henry said. “In those days my church had a lot of musicians. In other churches around there, there were more drummers than keyboard players. But my church had more organists — and only one organ.”
As in so many African American churches, the organist didn’t always strike up the choir with a little intro that got everyone singing the right note at the right time in the right key. Often, the choir would just fall into a song — and the organist had to catch up, and keep up.
“So if you wanted to play you kind of had to know how to play in all the keys,” Henry said. “If they started a song, say, ‘God is Good,’ and they’re singing in E, it was kind of hard to push them up to F in the middle of a song. So I think I discovered at an early age, ‘Oh, think I hear that key, it sounds like A-flat. It sounds like B’ — and just went on from there. Playing in a church you train your ear to play.”
As his fans all know, Cory Henry was first famous at the age of four. Not with a classical debut at Carnegie Hall, but as the star of a home movie that got around, playing a version of “Amazing Grace.” He’s got a little suit on, and holds up four fingers when asked how old he is. Just a kid, of course — but you can hear he’s got something.
In this clip from the NPR “Tiny Desk Concerts” series, Henry shows his gospel singing roots with the Funk Apostles band. The song is “Love Will Find a Way.”
But if you want to hear Henry take off on the Hammond B3 organ, Vicic, the violist, says the thing to hear is the Snarky Puppy song “Lingus.” The video begins with horns stacking up sound. The drummer lays down a beat. “Then about half way through (around the 4:17 mark) he takes it up and just takes off. It’s the most incredible organ playing you’ve ever heard.”
“The other thing church does,” Henry said, “is once you get to a place where they understand you, they call you ‘Master.’ They were calling me Master Henry at five years old. Why would they call me Master Henry? I couldn’t even tie my shoes.”
Maybe they knew something.
The Louisville Orchestra will present “Gospel at the Symphony” with Cory Henry and the St. Stephen Baptist Church Choir on Saturday, February 22 at 8:00 p.m. For more details, click here.