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Im still blown away by the majesty and quietly swinging power of Larrys solo piano on this, his first Mapleshade session. For 20 years, hed wanted to record his jazz interpretations of the church music he grew up with. Heres the fruit of those creative years. Willis uses dynamics and silences to maximize the emotional power and drama of Take My Hand Precious Lord and Motherless Child. These heartfelt, introspective performances build slowly This Little Light Of Mine and Let Us Break Bread Together are brighter and less solemn. Duke Ellingtons Come Sunday fits perfectly with the hope and sorrow of these hymns and spirituals, 4-Stars according to Down Beat. Not to mention this is possibly the best jazz piano sound ever on CD. (#01432)
Larry Willis, piano
Solo Spirit is Willis' tribute to a higher authority, a fervent exploration of the improvisational possibilities of traditional spirituals. Recorded with great presence and (analog) warmth, Willis uses dynamics and silences to maximize the emotional power and drama of Take My Hand Precious Lord and Motherless Child. These heartfelt, introspective performances build slowly, with melodies emerging hesitantly from Willis' brooding, ominous chords. This Little Light Of Mine and Let Us Break Bread Together are brighter and less solemn. Duke Ellington's Come Sunday fits perfectly with the hope and sorrow of these hymns and spirituals. Solo performance emphasizes Willis' strong rhythmic foundation, and these songs are distinctive vehicles for his melodic imagination and interpretive skills. Solo Spirit compares well with investigations of similar material by Horace Parlan and Dave Burrell. The maximum-length CD of over 76 minutes has its greatest impact when spread over several listenings.
Performance **** Sound Quality *****
The most successful attempt to express religious faith in the language of jazz has been the "sacred music" of Duke Ellington. Solo Spirit deserves to be mentioned in such company. It may be less ambitious than Ellington's work (solo piano vs. large ensemble; traditional spirituals vs. original compositions), but it's no less profound.
Larry Willis has accompanied such greats as Jackie McLean, Woody Shaw, and Clifford Jordan on more than 250 albums. On Solo Spirit he makes his own statement. His readings aren't so much "jazz interpretations" of spirituals as they are meditations upon their personal and universal meanings. Willis is a strong, clear player, and these themes move him to reach within himself to find strength in surrender and clarity that acknowledges mystery.
You will fill the spaces between the achingly slow chords of Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child with whatever life has taught you of sadness. Ellington's Come Sunday is a searching aspiration. The final two pieces proceed from high drama (The Lord's Prayer) to release and resignation (May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You).
The beauty of this album's emotion is inseparable from the richness of its recorded sound. Producer/engineer Pierre Sprey is an artist in his own right at capturing the texture of a musical event on tape.
The album title of (1) was inspired by Willis' choice of selections: spirituals, familiar hymns, a gospel tune and Ellington's Come Sunday. Keep the latter in mind for a moment for it will help me describe for you why Willis' performances here genuinely earn the word "beautiful". Jazz artists have been incorporating and interpreting church music from the beginning of the music. For most that brings to mind a funky gospel blues or a call and response blowing riff. Willis reminds us through his performances here how a jazz artist can use his unique mastery of improvisation and musical talents to create music that is both reverential and inspirationally beautiful. What adds to the beauty of his music here is that even if you aren't familiar with the source tunes, you'll still find yourself silently applauding them for his creative improvisational work alone. Liner notes are promotional by intention and purpose. However, like me, after listening to his performance of Motherless Child, you can easily believe the description of Willis being observed from the control booth sounding the final notes at the keyboard with a tear rolling down his cheek. Adding to the unadorned elegance of the album is the way in which it was recorded. Willis plays on a restored 1911 vintage Steinway, recorded direct to tape without the usual mixing board, multi-tracking or overdubbing. I was reminded of a wonderful passage I'd heard years ago, each time I played this album. It's one that has stayed with me ever since. It described music as a language of delightful sensations, far more eloquent than words. The songs Willis performs here are arguably more familiar for their words than their music. But he gives each a wordless eloquence of his own. Recommended.