By Andrew Gilbert
For much of its history, jazz was cast as the devil’s music -- an earthy antithesis to the sacred strains of gospel and spirituals. Jazz musicians themselves never bought into that false dichotomy, and artists from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane created music that directly expressed their spiritual longings. But few jazz musicians have turned directly to hymns and spirituals as musical vessels.
Berkeley bassist Jeff Denson and San Diego pianist Joshua White tend to inhabit jazz’s progressive edge as supple musical searchers deeply informed by jazz’s avant-garde. Their new duo album, "I’ll Fly Away," finds them bringing the same exploratory sensibility to a program of sacred music. While it’s a major departure for both players in terms of repertoire, throughout the album’s 11 tracks they succeed in a wondrous balancing act, respectfully interpreting the songs without relinquishing their identities as improvisers, like on a reverent rendition of the Negro spiritual “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.”
A deeply personal album, "I’ll Fly Away" came about after Denson’s grandmother died several years ago and the bassist arranged a program of hymns that she loved for her funeral. The experience helped him bond with family members he hadn’t seen for years, and he knew that White would be an ideal partner for investigating this body of music. A friend since they met at UC San Diego about a decade ago, White has become an essential force on the Southland jazz scene as a bandleader and collaborator with heavyweights like trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and alto saxophone great Charles McPherson. Denson knew that White grew up playing in the Baptist church, and could fully express himself on material like the 19th century hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” where his piano caresses each note with care.
Denson quietly resettled in Berkeley a few years ago when he accepted a position as a professor at Berkeley’s Jazzschool, which was recently rechristened the California Jazz Conservatory. Best known for his long-running relationship with alto sax legend Lee Konitz, one of the last jazz masters who came of age during World War II, he’s earned an international reputation as a bassist who can play any role in an ensemble. The duo format is particularly suited for his highly interactive approach, and along with "I’ll Fly Away," he’s releasing a free jazz duo session, "Two," with Swiss clarinet virtuoso Claudio Puntin.
Denson and White recorded each piece in one take, and the album captures the immediacy of their collaboration. It also showcases Denson’s masterly bow work. There’s a vast chorus of voices in Denson’s singing bass, and he unleashes them all on a tour de force solo version of “Amazing Grace.” More than the title track, “I’ll Fly Away” is the album’s touchstone. The duo interprets the tune three times, opening and closing the CD with the sturdy melody, which has been interpreted in blues and bluegrass settings as well as by countless country and gospel artists.
The first time it’s a joyous romp, the second time slow and mournful, and the final version is the freest and fastest track on the album, as if delving into these sacred songs has unburdened them. "I’ll Fly Away" is part spiritual journey, part jazz odyssey, and wholly an act of love.