Tenor saxophonist Archie Thompson leads a cracker jack ensemble called the ArchTones and with this record release, Jazz Vespers, Vol. 3, he and his troupe offer the latest volume of in an ongoing project to perform and record gospel—inspired jazz at the Chapel of the First Presbyterian Church in San Diego. This isn’t, rest assured, slow, plodding, and sinner–beware rants from a musical pulpit. This is in line with my own feelings of what the foremost goals of a spiritual life and art are, which is to create joy, that state when you are aware of the miracle of being alive and the power of kindness and creativity to rouse the downtrodden soul and lift a person up with an open heart.
The music made by Thompson and the ArchTones is intended to move the listener to have the willingness to live in the moment, senses fully alive, imagination active, to go into the world with the conviction that life needn’t be dour, sad, and tragic. It is testimony praising the Creator, couched in terms of the African–American Christian tradition, but it’s a liturgy that concerns itself with life here and now; one needn’t wait for life after death for reward or judgment. Now is the time to get the feeling, to feel pulse, to experience the love of one’s fellow man in a community that nurtures service and creativity. Thankfully, Thompson and his players use music, not a slew of over–heated words, to get the message across. This jazz of the old school values, showing an intimate relationship with black gospel and blues roots, jump swing and classic ballad work. It’s not just a session of hot licks, though, being an album whose title describes an evening prayer service; gospel songs are strongly represented, their message of deliverance and joy in pursuing the good in life made more emphatically swinging and alive by the vitality of the musicianship on hand.
Especially revealing in how the spirit can be moved by music and letting go of old ideas emerges as the band brings their talents to bear on the Jackie Wilson 1967 classic “Higher and Higher.” Wilson’s original version is a rhythm and blues masterpiece, a stirring melody that complements the singer’s magnificently ascendant vocal, one of those testaments of a man’s undying love for a woman. The ArchTones mix it up just a bit, make it a tad funkier with a New Orleans march beat, sweetly framing a sinner’s profession of love in his or her God, the force from which all that is worth living for flows. Tony Davis’ vocal is crisp and clear, testifying as it climbs the scale. This is an inspired transformation of a classic song. Thompson gets behind the piano and takes a turn at a vocal with “Old Blind Barnabas,” a rumbling, keyboard-charged performance, a fine, grizzled, graciously raspy vocal. With steadfast drumming from Danny Campbell, this is music that sways and rocks, rousing the soul to follow example and do better by our fellow citizens. Gospel receives equally rewarding treatments throughout the rhythmic uplift this album brings us, as in Whitney Shay’s clarion–like rendition of “Come Sunday,” a magnificent voice of a young singer who reveals skills and nuance of an older, subtler approach to a vocal. Spirituality in repose, there is a sense of ease when gratitude is expressed and the tonnage of woe is released.
The ArchTones and their guests have ample opportunity to strut their sense of what truly swings and moves the listener. A standout number is the standard “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a chestnut in lesser hands, but Thompson’s saxophone is sure and spry, chasing down the effectively propulsive rhythm of drummer Danny Campbell and the resonant bass underpinning provided by Jason Littlefield, stating the melody just slightly and causing a glimmer of recognition but then breaking off the iteration and moving ahead with swift and sweeping forays. It’s a performance that seems to me to dance on the edge of the band’s accents and rapidly modulated chord voicings, or perhaps more like Olympic gymnastics performed on a high wire.
Thompson has grace and instinctive sure–footedness when he offers up a brisk sortie, but he performs the deeper, moodier colors of ballads as well. His tone cuts deep and his manipulations of his pitch, stretching upward toward a breaking point but then easing off the stratospheric exploration to return again closer to the ground where he stands, burnishing his sound with a dark, gritty sound that contains the bark and back beat of classic rhythm and blues. His reading of “Comin’ Home Baby” makes this quality clear, his saxophone work nearly vocal in telling the tale of a man returning to his one and only by any means he can devise. It’s a tale without words, just notes shaped to the resonance of human emotion. There are quite a few memorable moments here—a lively combination of gospel, blues, and mainstream jazz. This is a sparkling jazz session that inspired me to plug in my microphone and play harmonica along with some of the tracks and inspired me further to walk along Mission Bay, no destination in mind, nothing but me, blue sky, the blue water, and hundreds San Diegans and visitors taking advantage of warm temperatures and sunshine. This is what Jazz Vespers Vol.3 can inspire you to do, perhaps: turn off the computer, arise, and explore the miracle of the world we’re blessed to live in.