When is the contemporary style of gospel music not exclusively
contemporary gospel music? Easy. When it’s played expertly by a
pair of brothers raised in New Orleans’ profoundly spiritual
churchgoing community and applied to a program of selections all
considered traditional hymns in the New Orleans canon.
The Bemiss Brothers, Al and Burnell, come to this mix of church
and showmanship by birthright, both having been raised in the
church of their father, the Fifth African Baptist Church in New
Orleans, led by Reverend Walter Bemiss. The brothers both
developed strong musical skills in the church and later absorbed
the tenets of pop music.
Al has played keyboards behind Johnnie Taylor, Candi Staton, and
New Orleans’ own Clarence “Frogman” Henry; he also served as
music director for the touring cast of “One Mo’ Time,” a musical
revue conceived in New Orleans and based on old-time blues
belters and African-American performance styles. Burnell,
meanwhile, has contributed his stirring vocal solos to the New
Orleans Sound Company, a popular R&B band, as well as to local
churches in New Orleans and the surrounding area.
In their hands, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” a very old
spiritual, is recast as a contemporary ballad that could easily
be from a Broadway production, while “(We’ll Understand It
Better) Bye and Bye,” set to an easy-loping beat and embellished
by a smoking sax solo, could easily close the same show.
Other standouts include the uptempo, lively “Blessed Assurance”
and “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried,” done as a solemn ballad.
But singling out individual numbers does this CD a disservice,
because it reveals both deep faith and musical virtuosity
informed by a fresh vision on each and every inspired track.