Smokie Norful Live
EMI Gospel 2009
Smokie Norful possesses one of the finest male voices in gospel music today. His vocal melisma, or “curlicues,” are like the micro-bursts of sound Charlie Parker coaxed out of his saxophone. Now that Norful’s a pastor, the preacher’s breathless, aisle-pacing intensity also colors his voice.
All this and then some can be found on Norful’s first live performance CD. Titled Smokie Norful Live, natch, it was recorded at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts in Memphis, Tennessee. The deluxe edition of the audio CD includes an excellent DVD of the live performance.
Some of the album’s mid-tempo praise songs are conventional, and Tye Tribbett’s contribution to the opening “He’s Gonna Come Through” doesn’t do justice to his over-the-top personality, at least not on CD. What does make the live project exceptional are its many moments of sheer brilliance, when Norful sings accompanied softly by piano, or unfettered by quick tempos and strong instrumentation. The current single, “Justified,” and “Dear God” are fine examples. The latter composition, written by the singer himself, has the lyric form and simple wisdom of a Dorsey. Including both live and studio versions of “Dear God” on the CD offers listeners a chance to compare the two. My money is on the live version because in performance, Norful delivers the song with the introspection and gravity of an old-time gospel soloist singing at a solemn homegoing service.
To say that Norful is at his best with minimal instrumentation is not meant as a critique of the musicians, who do a superbly professional job. I am always pleased to hear a real horn section, as opposed to the contrived keyboard-synthesized horns that prevailed over gospel in the 1980s. The horn section here is powerful and brassy.
Norful’s cover of the 1980 inspirational song by Lionel Richie, “Jesus Is Love,” is rendered in duet with his label mate, the incomparable Heather Headley. Every time I hear this song, I think the two ought to do an entire gospel album together.
The bluesy “Don’t Quit” is one of several songs on the project that addresses current affairs – in this case a down economy, inflation, making ends meet, and even troublesome family and friends. It concludes with the instruction, “whatever you do, just don’t quit.” “Mighty God” reminds the audience that Jesus is stronger than any disease, whether diabetes or even cancer. Other times Norful reflects on his own life, such as on “In the Presence of the King,” where it sounds as if his gospel celebrity has had its bumpy moments. “My Choice” is an arrangement of “I’ve Decided to Make Jesus My Choice,” a song I first heard on a late ‘60s record by Harrison Johnson and the LA Community Choir.
The conclusion of the DVD (track 10 on the CD) is “I’ve Been Delivered,” an old school church workout that brings the audience to its feet and clapping to the beat as the credits roll.
Five of Five Stars
gPod picks: “Justified,” “Dear God,” “Jesus Is Love,” “I’ve Been Delivered.”