by Daniel Bass
        I receive inspiration any which way I can get it.  Because there is a lot of ugly in the world, I take
any beauty I can and hold on tight.  And I found beauty and inspiration in a major way with this project called
Church: Songs of Soul and Inspiration.  Gospel is one of the few remaining forms of music that continues to
play art over artifice, and this CD is no exception.  Church is a celebration of love, life, and God.  Shoot,
if that was all it had going for it, I would still be all over it; but it encapsulates so much more.
        This album is the brainchild of operatic mezzo-soprano, and star of Bizet’s Carmen, DENYCE GRAVES.
After being told by a young fan that her upbringing in church was apparent in her voice, she began to wonder
how this shared background had influenced many other African-American females across musical boundaries.  She
decided to explore this theme by organizing an amazing group of artists to record popular and sacred songs in
the spirit of their roots in church.
        She enlisted DR. MAYA ANGELOU, poet extraordinaire, to contribute a spoken word piece entitled “Church:
It’s Sacred”.  Also, the amazing novelist Toni Morrison provides the album’s liner notes.  Both draw beautiful
pictures illustrating the concept of church as a mind frame instead of a location.  This celebration of a
carried spirituality obviously permeates many of the singers’ performances since they arrive from all arenas,
including the concert halls of opera and pop stages.
        The first song is a remake of Elvis’ “The Wonder of You” recorded by JENNIFER HOLLIDAY.  Always lauded
for her powerful instrument, she delivers in a big way.  In her own words, as someone who has had "more downs
than ups", this project was particularly important for Holliday as a way of affirming her connection to
spirituality which began in her childhood and has sustained her throughout adulthood.  She thus personifies the
entire spirit of the CHURCH project.
        Next, PATTI LaBELLE reprises her song “Way Up There” which was initially recorded for the victims of
the space shuttle Columbia’s explosion.  With a voice that has aged as beautifully as her spirit (hitting full-
voiced A flats!) LaBelle lays her heels into this song!  In the accompanying video (because as a bonus, the CD
comes with a disc of video interviews and performance footage from each of the singers), she states that church
is always with her.  She takes no prisoners on this one.
        STEPHANIE MILLS takes Diana Ross’ “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, and wrings emotion from it
like water from a rag.  After considering suicide, Mills turned to gospel music as a means of combating those
self-destructive emotions and has pulled through into a much brighter space. This sentiment is evident in her
performances; you can tell she means it.  She made an even bigger fan out of me with this one.
        The two remaining members of EN VOGUE produce a remake the BEE GEES’ “How Deep Is Your Love”.  This is
possibly the only faltering moment of the CD.  Although they both have stunning voices, the song seems to stray
from the album’s concept.  That said it is still pleasant to listen to, just not quite in keeping with the
        Without a doubt, the most astonishing performance on this CD, is an inspirational reworking of Des’ree’s
‘90’s hit “Gotta Be” by jazz and soul diva PATTI AUSTIN.  Whereas I thought her to be a reserved songstress,
she turns out a soul-searing, fire-filled performance.  Her interaction with the FIRE CHOIR (formed especially
for the CD) is remarkable.  She throws a big handful of funk into the mixture and, in the process, ends up
being one of my favorites on this incredible project.  That’s a big deal ‘cuz she’s in great company.
        The only true gospel singer on the CD performs next, and she does her genre and faith proud!  Pastor
SHIRLEY CAESAR has been making traditional gospel music for decades.  Her “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” is chill-
inducing and heartfelt.  The organ in the background combined with her voice and the choir makes you just want
to shut your eyes and feel the spirit woven into every note.  Afterwards, the “gospelfied” funk resumes with
the FIRE CHOIR’s rendition of STEVIE WONDER’s perennial favorite “As”.
        Then one of the greatest and most imitated voices in soul music takes over. CHAKA KHAN has been making
magic for years.  It’s always a treat to hear her.  She reworks her beautiful ballad “Love Me Still” from the
soundtrack to the Spike Lee Joint Clockers.  She starred in an English production of the gospel play, Mama, I
Want to Sing, and this is her first return to gospel since then.  And it’s sho’ ‘nuff a good one!  The
‘oooo!’ she closes on is worth the CD to me.
        DENYCE GRAVES then decided to create another of my favorites on this CD. She takes “Ave Maria” to a
place it’s never been.  Backed by the FIRE CHOIR, her exquisite version retains its solemnity and refined beauty
magnified by her glorious voice.  She begins with a very low pianissimo, reaching a low C below middle C (got
my attention!).  The song climaxes at an astonishing A natural, resonating with the clarity and strong
projection that her voice always imparts.  Her voice alone could carry this song, but the lovely arrangement
takes it to angelic heights.
        Anything after that is almost a letdown, but NNENNA FREELON does an admirable version of “Ooh Child”.
This song has never been a favorite of mine, but she sings it well and it swings with the jazzy vibe that she
possesses.  It may end up growing on me.  This is followed by DIONNE WARWICK’s redoing of her own “What The
World Needs Now Is Love”.  Still possessed of a lovely instrument, a soprano with a sweet vibrato, Warwick gives
a sophisticated rendition of the classic.  It retains its beautiful sentiment.  Both of these songs serve as
time to recuperate for the next one!
        My absolute, total, without a doubt favorite on this CD is provided by former SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS singer
ANN NESBY.  Covering DONNY HATHAWAY’s “Song For You”, she achieves the absolute goal of art, packing emotion
into every last note and making you feel her every word.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s singing one of my favorite
songs either (smile).  She sucks you in and clutches your heart and doesn’t let go until way after she stops
singing.  The gospel fervor she injects jells perfectly with the song and I love it.  Her honeyed alto reaches
a series of E flats that send shivers down my spine.  You need to buy this album if only to hear the
magnificence of this song.  The choir ends on a rumbling F that just keeps on rumbling through you.
        The FIRE CHOIR closes with a choral arrangement of Patti’s “Way Up There” that is so inspirational that
one can just envision it as the soundtrack to any given Sunday, and a reprise featuring Dr. MAYA ANGELOU singing
a spiritual from her youth.
        If you think my superlatives and adjectives are a little much, get the CHURCH: SONGS OF SOUL &
INSPIRATION album and realize why I’m praising it so highly.  Feel the spirit of all the little girls across the
nation who grow up to be singers, doctors, lawyers, teachers... but are each cultivated in one shared place:
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