Concert review: Many talents combine in 'Gospel According to Jazz'

In what has become the traditional finale to Boscov's Berks Jazz Fest, saxophonist Kirk Whalum brought his "Gospel According to Jazz" concert to the Scottish Rite Cathedral in West Reading Sunday night, bringing the audience to its feet in a joyful, affirmative experience for all.

Backed by an excellent band, Kirk and his brother Kevin Whalum opened with a soulful rendition of "Do You Feel Me?, with Kirk on the tenor and Kevin vocalizing to a nice hand-clapping beat, backed by an excellent band with John Stoddart at the keyboards.

Part freewheeling happening and part raucous church service, the concert, as always, featured musicians who share a love of gospel music - and of the Gospel - performing with rare fervor and virtuosity.

Despite the very problematic sound system and acoustics, the talent of everyone involved shone through, as the Whalums proceeded on to "Triage," Kirk's dark reflection on gun violence. Dark and chaotic, with angular lines, the piece needed no words to express the anguish of lost lives other than Kevin's vocalises and Kirk's broiling solos - as well as fine solos from each band member.

Kirk gave the audience some previews from his newest CD, "LoveCovers," to be released Tuesday, beginning with the Marvin Gaye hit, "God Is Love," with Kevin lending his velvety, enormous vocal range to Kirk's arrangement, featuring a complex sax coda that segued comically into "If You're Happy and You Know It."

Kevin also sang "Somebody, Somewhere," from his CD "I Live for You," including his signature scat and beat box, exuding a serene, Buddha-like presence as always.

Reading's own DOXA Gospel Ensemble joined them for a fervent "Wonderful, Merciful Savior," and stayed throughout the rest of the concert. From what I could hear, they sound better than ever. Stoddart supported Kirk's old-time gospel playing on the piano, and sang lead as well, in "What's This?" Both were from the new CD.

The rest of the night was given over to gospel singing, first by the impressive guest vocalists Lindsey Webster from New York and Philadelphia-based Tamika Patton, then primarily by the featured singer/songwriter/bassist Fred Hammond, whose voice is almost operatic in quality. Between songs with galvanizing, pounding percussion, Hammond commented on the "hard times" we're going through, urging the audience to "pray for our leaders and pray for our president, because he has our lives in his hands."

Echoing Whalum's "Triage," Hammond also talked about his son, a college student whose dormitory has seen violence and death. His emotion was palpable, and remained so through his songs.

"He's there!" one song proclaimed repeatedly, bookended by the Psalm "God Is My Refuge and My Strength." And Hammond evoked more old-time gospel with "The Lord Is Good," demonstrating there is no joy like that expressed in this music.

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