Roots: Part One

 

Preamble (what one does before ambling)

You’ve got to be very careful

if you don’t know where you are going,

because you might not get there.

 

Yogi Berra

If Yogi Berra was right, it might be more prudent to look back on where I’ve been and just maybe I’ll have a better idea of where I’m going with this blog.

My first (indeterminate number of) entries are going to address some of the influences which spawned my interest and have affected my present tastes in music.

One apology/word of explanation on any of my performances to follow… my intention is not to provide a flawless, polished recording (thank goodness!) but rather to illustrate what I’m writing about. To that end you should know that, except where I specifically indicate, these are simple unedited “piano to recorder to mp3” playing… mistakes and all. Fortunately (as I’ll explain), I seldom play anything exactly the same way twice and you may just have missed a flawless (but unrecorded) performance. I know I always seem to miss them!

Roots: Part One

Gospel and a little Andrae Crouch

I still remember fondly listening repeatedly to certain recordings as a young child. One such album, released in 1957 was A Treasury of Gospel Hymns by the Selah Jubilee Choir. Just to give you a taste of their sound, here’s a sample (complete with vinyl scratches).

About that time I started piano lessons. It is more credit to my mother’s determination than my perseverance that I managed to complete my grade eight piano by the time I completed grade eight at school. I was certainly not gifted in my playing of the Royal Conservatory selections but my real Achilles heel was sight reading. I’ve always envied the musician who could sit down, look at a complex array of notes and symbols and immediately translate written notation into a performance. At best I stumbled through the most elementary tests of this skill.

Fortunately other circumstances provided me with an alternative mode of survival at the piano. Not long after I began my lessons, my mother and several like-minded souls decided that our village needed a Baptist church (don’t they all?) and they established a Sunday School at our house (already home to a gas station, snack bar and auto maintenance business). Soon a recognized church was established and, in the absence of congregants who could play an instrument, I was enlisted to assist… for Sunday School, for Sunday morning and evening services and weekly prayer meetings. This led to a dire predicament for me- how do I play for all these occasions and people when I don’t read music well. The solution which evolved over a period of time was to focus on the melody line of the chosen hymn and to look for patterns in harmony which seemed to “work”. Soon I began to recognize the chords implied in the notation and I often (when forewarned) scribbled the chord changes over the melody line. For whatever reason I could play a song using this methodology far more readily and proficiently than struggling for a note by note performance. If afforded one other benefit… I could experiment with rhythms and harmonies since I wasn’t constrained by the notes on the page. The sample below is the first part of the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus played (more or less) “by the book” and then with a certain freedom afforded by not reading… call it playing by ear or improvising.

As a child growing up in the late fifties and sixties I was not immune to the popular music revolution going on all about me. That revolution was very slow to engage with the traditional church music of my youth. More often this rock’n’roll style was seen as “music of the devil”, not something to be listened to extensively and certainly not incorporated into church music in my world.

Fortunately the spiritual/gospel tradition that was part of Afro-American heritage was less inclined to shun pop music, in part because that very tradition helped to spawn this new sound… perhaps less revolution and more evolution. And, in a lot of discussion on this topic, the name of Andrae Crouch figures prominently.

You can read lots of biographical material online so I won’t say a great deal  here. He was (with twin sister Sandra) born in 1942 and, from an early age, demonstrated a largely self-taught gift for writing and performing music. Co-incidentally his first childhood performance (as accompanist) was What a Friend (our earlier example). Throughout the latter 60’s and 70’s he pioneered a sound which embraced both traditional black gospel and the pop music of the era. His efforts earned him a worldwide following and seven Grammy awards (in addition to numerous other accolades). My best personal memory of his gift was a concert he gave in London, Ontario fairly early in his career. He was invited to perform at a local high school auditorium. Armed with only a second keyboardist who played a synth to provide a bit of colour to the performances, he sat down at (what turned out to be) a grand piano rather notably out of tune and with a number of non-functioning keys. He took this in stride (rather generous for a piano player) and gave a very joyous personal concert which transcended the limitations of the instrument. I must say I was moved by the musicianship and spirit which he brought to his performance. And I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that he significantly affected how I approach my own playing. He now ministers in the same church which his father helped establish and pastored. And, while his church consumes the bulk of his focus now, he still takes time to write and perform for a wider audience. One of my favourites from his most recent Mighty Wind album is a song titled I Will Bless the Lord. Below is (more or less) my take on the song and below that is a link to a performance by a church choir in North Carolina.

 

 

If you want to further enhance (to boldly go) your Crouch experience, check out these two links.

His song, Soon and Very Soon, was used at the funeral for Michael Jackson.

I came across this example of A.C. performing one of his older compositions solo. It might give you a flavour of my first concert experience with him.

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