A spiritual - as bassist John Patitucci tries to explain it on his latest Concord release - should be a highly personalized expression of faith in a deeply troubled world. It is praise, lament, and hope wrapped into one, a musical location of God’s work in a world often antagonistic to it - a tale told with the dual motion of supplication and the creative action Christians identify as their Lord’s mission for man. Little wonder, then, that spirituals proper were formed in the free-flowing, radical, often clandestine communities of the African-American church during slavery. Bigger wonder, perhaps, that these personal tales have tugged musical heartstrings far beyond the foundations in which they first arose. But how, Patitucci asks here, might a musical form built on intimacy and connection confront a digital globe stretched to its disparate and wide-ranging limits - might one speak of supplication in a secularized and separated world; might one recover reverence in the rubble of man-made indifference?
Patitucci’s answer, on this swollen, but smoothly-flowing set of music, is that only a devotion built on the maturity and multiplicity of the modern world can successfully address man’s pain, his praise, and ultimately his promise. Songs, Stories, and Spirituals offers a bounty of musical gifts, drawn from the distant corners of Patitucci’s career, and woven into a remarkably cohesive statement on the nature of musical possibility. Moods drift from gritty determination ("I Will Arise") to serene sincerity ("In the Bleak Midwinter") to jaunty optimism ("Lei") to open-eyed gratitude ("Chovendo Na Roseira"). Arrangements vary from a straightforward jazz trio setting to a cello-piano duet to a string quartet, with stops along the way for flute, nylon six-string guitar, and the complex, compelling vocals of Brazilian Luciana Souza. All of which is most surprising for the way in which one track deftly transforms into the next without a jarring transition in sight, a thoughtful service composed of twelve sermons circling around the same timely theme.
This is mostly attributable to the fantastic level of empathy evinced by Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade, and pianist Ed Simon, who undergird the proceedings on all but a couple of tracks. Patitucci - from his classical arco proclivities to his fleet-fingered electric excursions - Blade - from his thunderous mallet rumblings to his Tony Williams scattershot percolations - and Simon - from his pianistic jazz cadences to his percussion work - sport more flexibility than an Olympic gymnastics team, proving true a subtle axiom: that virtuosity lies in variety. Thus, they steam forward on the straightforward "Tell Tale," they ebb and recede on the beautifully constructed "Now the River," and they surrender to simplicity on the slowly unfolding "It Never Entered My Mind." In addition, they work well in tandem or split into pieces: Simon wraps lush arpeggios lovingly around Sachi Patitucci’s cello exposition of "Love Eternal," and Patitucci and Blade breathe heavily on "Wise One," the bassist’s circular, droning spirals swerving and sidling up to the drummer’s tom rolls and shimmying cymbal work. Rarely is a whole group of musicians both talented enough and self-effacing enough to convincingly render an entire set of such varied music - the trio at the heart of this album sits behind the subtle charms of Songs, Stories and Sprituals’ personality.
Whether his recent work with Wayne Shorter’s acoustic quartet, his contribution to Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, or his longtime (if lesser-known) association with Brazilian music, Patitucci has brought together all of those influences into a highly personal, contemplative, largely cohesive program of music, one that sits like a benchmark between past exploits, present collaborations, and future possibilities. If one views these elements as thankfulness, creativity, and promise, respectively, then it is easy to witness the prayerfulness that anchors the music’s center. This endows Songs, Stories and Spirituals with an integrity that lifts the album with a cohesive buoyancy, making statements while eschewing the pretension that seeks to answer every question. In times like these - whether politically or more narrowly in the self-suffocating jazz universe - therein lies a faith of fitful possibility and dire necessity; certainly it is an accomplishment, but it also surrenders and surprises with all the personality and open-endedness of the best art.