The Phantom Tollbooth

Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration
Artist: Various
Label: Reprise
Time: 16 tracks

George Friedrich Handel composed his famous oratorio Messiah in three weeks
in 1741.  Although in his day it was performed at Easter, it has since become a common Christmas season tradition. It has been said he intended the music to be updated to keep up with the times, and for two centuries that consisted primarily of changing the orchestration as the instrumentation and styles progressed. A couple recent efforts have taken this even further, including the popular CCM version Handel's Young Messiah. Norman Miller, however, conceived an even more ambitious project:  to place Handel's masterpiece into the framework of musical forms of Africans and African-Americans. For this, he enlisted a tremendous cast of Black performers, and co-producers Gail Hamilton and Mervyn Warren (of Take 6 fame), to produce the hit of the 1992 Christmas season, and a certain classic, Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.

The overture, subtitled "A Partial History of Black Music," sets an impressive tone. Sweeping through the past few centuries of Black musical expressions, it starts with African drums and pipes and progresses all the way to hip-hop and house beats, all the while maintaining the recognizable motifs and melodies of Handel's original composition. The outcome is a creative collage of genres assembled with great sensitivity and style.

The collection's opposite bookend is "Hallelujah!," directed by Quincy Jones and performed by a chorus consisting of all the other contributors combined--and then some. Though not particularly remarkable, it stands solidly on the energy of the base material combined with the collective soul of a few dozen star performers.

The space between these two pillars is filled with a scattering of different approaches to various arias and recitatives. None are without merit, but a few are not quite up to the high caliber of the collection as a whole. This seems more dependent upon the arrangements than anything else, as one can tell from even the worst track's high points that all the performers seem quite able to deliver. Some arrangers were just less able to infuse Handel's music with soul than others.

The album's show-stopper is "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming," superbly arranged and produced by David Pack, with lead vocals by Patti Austin. The opening is solemn and suspenseful, wondering "who shall stand when he appeareth?" Then the tension mounts, the beat kicks in, and it is explained "For he is like a refiner's fire." As if just telling us weren't enough, Austin then shouts it out in true gospel-diva style. This is a truly explosive number, capturing well the sense of its text.

Another highlight is the collaboration between Take 6 and Stevie Wonder, "O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion." It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Take 6's a cappella arrangements that they are the epitome of smooth, tight jazz harmonies, and Wonder wildly weaves his way into the picture with the same skill one always expects from him. The result is nothing more than what you would think, yet nothing short of wonderful.

The other particularly noteworthy selection is "Glory to God," sung by the Boys Choir of Harlem.  Pure, stereotypically angelic voices begin the announcement "And suddenly, there was with them..."  followed by a multitude of voices, a wall of gospel harmony, causing you to wonder what sound in heaven could be more powerful. Add to this some impressive rap from Leaders of the New School and some hip-hopping beats and loops, and you've got yourself quite a party.

There are yet other sweet performances, such as the Yellowjackets's smooth, jazz instrumental "Behold the Lamb of God," and Al Jarreau's swinging big band number "Why do the Nations so Furiously Rage?" With such a collection playing on your stereo, there will certainly be much cause for your soul to celebrate.

By Titi Ala'ilima  (11/6/98)