Friday, July 9, 2010

Carlton Pearson: Live at Azusa (1995)

(As published in Offbeat ... )

Carlton Pearson
Live at Azusa
(Warner Alliance)

Pastor Carlton Pearson not only looks ill-suited to the task of fronting this excellent live gospel album, he sounds it too. In other words, if his tailor-made, powder-blue suit and sweatless, bespectacled countenance make him look like a cross between an up-and-coming young executive and a doctoral candidate in psychology, his run-of-the-mill singing and rote exhortations ("I'm not talkin' 'bout what you wear, I'm talkin' 'bout what you are!") might make you wonder why he has both a record deal and a pulpit to begin with.

The answer is that he also has the Azusa Mass Choir--a one hundred-or-so-voice ensemble that under his directions rises, recedes, rocks, rolls, and roars like a giant who knows how to sing from his diaphragm as well as from his heart. They, not Pearson, are the stars of Live at Azusa. True, a couple of inspired solo cameos steal the spotlight every now and then. Karen Clark's eight-minutes of shouting, rapping, and scatting on "Take It by Force" deserve a Grammy category all their own. And twelve minutes of Daryl Coley singing "In the Arms of Jesus" won't hurt sales of his solo albums any.

But the choir, whoever they are (the eight-panel CD booklet has room for everything but their names), reclaim the album soon enough, starting with the "Hallelujah, He Reigns/Awesome God/Our God Reigns" medley and climaxing with the twenty-three-minute "Old Songs Medley." Singing whatever standards that Pearson's folksy reminiscences of growing up in church remind him of, the Azusa Mass Choir begin with a rollicking "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand" and wind down with a contemplative "I Feel like Going On." And if you've never heard a one hundred-voice gospel choir get contemplative, you're in for a treat for which no amount of hours spent with the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos can prepare you.

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