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Hail Mahalia



Her voice took Mahalia Jackson from New Orleans' Plymouth Rock Baptist Church all the way to the hallowed chambers of London's Royal Albert Hall. Gospel legend and New Orleans native Jackson was born here in 1911, and though she later moved to Chicago when she was a teenager, her formative childhood years immeasurably shaped her sound. Almost three decades after her passing, she indisputably remains gospel's greatest figure -- and a trio of new Jackson CD reissues attest to her musical brilliance.

Jackson recorded the bulk of her work for the Columbia record label, and Columbia/Legacy has just released Recorded Live in Europe During Her Latest Concert Tour, In Concert and Sunday Morning Prayer Meeting With Mahalia Jackson, each with previously unreleased material. And each CD represents a distinct chapter of Jackson's career.

Sunday Morning Prayer Meeting With Mahalia Jackson is a boon for neophytes and collectors alike, a quasi-greatest hits compilation covering Jackson's fertile sessions from 1956 to 1965. It features gospel classics such as "How I Got Over" -- with a young Billy Preston on organ -- and "Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go," Jackson's stirring version of one of the timeless songs written by her legendary collaborator Thomas A. Dorsey. Those selections are supplemented with seven bonus tracks, including live versions of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "I Found the Answer."

As an introduction to Jackson, the CD is instructive for presenting her affinity for slower, contemplative hymns. In many ways, Jackson's delivery of a meditative work like "Trouble in My Way" resembled a preacher delivering a sermon from the pulpit. There is never any question that Jackson's limber contralto is the main instrument, and the spare accompaniment -- subtle organ ripples, a muted piano figure and whispered snare brushwork -- functions like the murmured affirmations of a rapt congregation, as Jackson massages the melody like a piece of clay.

Her remarkable range and vocal control is at its finest on the album Recorded Live in Europe During Her Latest Concert Tour, a document of overwhelming power. Recorded in 1961, it spotlights Jackson's partnership with pianist Mildred Falls. The combination of Falls' rock-of-Gibraltar left-hand rhythms and Jackson's voice is pure thunder, as Jackson takes standard hymns like "Down by the Riverside" and turns them into personal anthems. Jackson rolls syllables, effortlessly navigates giant leaps in emphasis and volume, and finishes each song with dramatic emphasis. Two unreleased performances from that tour close the album, with Jackson almost scatting on a tour-de-force version of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

It's a marked contrast to In Concert, the album that captured Jackson's Easter Sunday performance at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1967. It was Jackson's first major concert in three years, since suffering heart trouble in 1964. Her return to the stage begins with a deliberate reading of "In My Home Over There," Jackson singing quietly at first and probably battling nerves, but by the time the hymn hits the six-minute mark, she assertively delivers the lyric and inspires a heartfelt ovation.

The performance is notable for the subtle adjustments Jackson makes to her delivery. The residual effect of her health problems sounds like a decrease in lungpower, and Jackson uses the loss of volume to dramatic effect. Her singing has a more gentle quality, and she lingers more in the space between verses, letting the silence carry the moment. It lends a wistful quality to "Thy Will Be Done," which takes on an after-hours blues hue in its languorous Charles Brown-like piano lines. The bridge between gospel and blues is also illuminated in "Elijah Rock," with its piano part mirroring the Little Willie John classic "Fever."

The poignancy of Jackson's return to the stage hits a high point in "Evening Prayer." She introduces the song with recollections of her childhood prayers, her speaking voice almost as soft as a whisper. Those memories then morph into the lyric, with Jackson slowly building the successive verses into a moving benediction. She works the entire program in similar fashion, slowly building intensity, until she finally brings the staid Lincoln Center crowd to its feet with rousing versions of "Lord, Don't Let Me Fail" and "Elijah Rock."

It's a triumphant moment, especially considering the events to come. Jackson's health would remain a concern, limiting her performance and recording schedule. She was gone only five years later, dying on Jan. 27, 1972 -- and the world's greatest gospel singer came back home. Jackson was buried in Providence Memorial Park in Metairie.

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