A man plucks a simple line on an upright bass. After two bars a muted trumpet and a fragile acoustic guitar add soft harmony, and a singer moans sotto voce. Then the trumpet pauses, and the bassist and guitarist start a meandering pianissimo jazz progression in 12/8 time, to which the singer rasps a simple plea: “Fix me, Jesus.” As the bass and guitar accompaniment ascend, the singer’s voice ascends likewise, into a raspy falsetto, repeating the plea with heightened urgency: “Fix me, Jesus.” Through a verse and another pass through the refrain the singer repeats the plea several times, softly, the very softness not muting but expressing the ardor: the singer must enter the plea “Fix me, Jesus,” but will not presume to sing it in full voice—not, at least, until Jesus has begun to fix and strengthen him.
So begins Jubilant Sykes’s Jubilant, one of the most unique albums of the past two decades. I discovered the album about a year after its 1998 release, and still remember how from the first listen it gripped me with that modest beginning, which spoke volumes about vocal performance, art, and spiritual discipline. It doesn’t take long to discover that Mr. Sykes’s voice is an instrument of range and power unsurpassed on earth—yet in humility he submits that instrument entirely to serve the words, music, and mood of the song.
Yip Harburg once said that while words make one think a thought, and music makes one feel a feeling, songs have a unique power to make one feel a thought. And for making one feel a thought, few songs are so evocative as African-American spirituals. In these songs one hears the story of Israel, and the story of Jesus Christ, and the story of African-Americans—and realizes they’re the same story. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? was and is a rhetorical question, to which the singer would anticipate the answer yes. Of Jubilant’s fourteen songs, eleven come from the great songbook of African-American spirituals.
Composer and orchestrator Terence Blanchard, whose substantial musical credits include several film scores (e.g. Malcolm X and the Hurricane Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts), gives the songs deft jazz arrangements. Mr. Blanchard’s skill at capturing moods in music is evident throughout Jubilant, and like Mr. Sykes he approaches the songs with a becoming modesty and thoughtfulness. The arrangements are spare, using only a small ensemble, and serving the singer as the singer serves the songs.
The album’s mood isn’t uniformly solemn and mournful. Mr. Sykes and Mr. Blanchard romp through “How I Got Over” with infectious joy. “If I Got My Ticket”—a song about the “gospel train” which in spirituals is a double entendre referring both to heaven and to the Underground Railroad—has Mr. Sykes calling his brothers to heed the coming judgment, because they’ve “got no time to waste away.” Indeed, the references to judgment on the album—as on “If I Got My Ticket” and “Live A-Humble”—carry the exuberance that characterizes the references to judgment in the Psalms: the Day of the Lord demands humble sobriety, but it’s also the day of deliverance from oppressors.
Listening to the stories as told in the African-American spirituals has afforded me a little clearer vision into the ways of the God whose grace is so extravagant that he delivers the oppressed from the teeth of the oppressor, and sometimes stoops even further to deliver the oppressor from his own snares and reconcile him to his brother. David Mitchel
Jubilant saves its greatest moment for last: a stunning arrangement and performance of “Were You There?” which progresses through the solemnity of the Passion to the glory of the Resurrection. It begins with an a cappella rendition of the first verse, which Mr. Sykes sings almost as if singing to himself. Then a slow drumroll sounds, the drumroll of a New Orleans funeral procession, as Mr. Sykes meditates on the day “when the blood came streaming down.” When the singer arrives at the tomb, the singer and drummer receive the company and consolation of bass and piano. And when the song arrives finally at Sunday, the musicians and singer explode with joy to greet the morning of the inaugural Eighth Day: “Were you there when He rose up from the dead? Sometimes I feel like shouting: Glory! Glory! Glory!”
Jubilant is, in my view, one of the most overlooked musical gems of the past quarter-century. As a piece of art it is awe-inspiring—blending virtuosity with impeccable musical judgment and thoughtful meditation on the subject matter of the songs. The greatest testimony, though, to the artistic excellence of Mr. Sykes, Mr. Blanchard, and all the musicians, is that by the end of Jubilant it is the songs one remembers most. These songs, of deceptive simplicity and revolutionary boldness, carry a standing challenge (both forthright and kind) to all Christians today, and particularly to those American church traditions that have been and remain predominantly white. For the white American’s perspective on the Exodus and the gospels is naturally closer to that of Egypt, or Pilate, or the Sanhedrin. Listening to the stories as told in the African-American spirituals has afforded me a little clearer vision into the ways of the God whose grace is so extravagant that he delivers the oppressed from the teeth of the oppressor, and sometimes stoops even further to deliver the oppressor from his own snares and reconcile him to his brother. In the light of such grace, one may truly hope that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.