For multi-talented musical hyphenate (musician, preacher, producer, author, educator) John Paul McGee, the release of his extraordinary genre-fusing debut album Gospejazzical, Vol 1 (Live) caps and extraordinary year that began with his appointment as assistant chair of the piano department at Berklee College of Music.
Up till now, the onetime prodigy – who began playing familiar church hymns at age four without any formal training – had been wrapped up in multiple educational endeavors (sacred and musical) and became a powerful behind the scenes force for everyone from Patti Labelle, Yolanda Adams and Donnie McClurkin to Najee.
Though McGee teased us with a holiday EP in 2014, the new 17 track, 77 minute collection is the official unleashing of, as the clever title indicates, his full range of jazz, gospel and classical powers. It’s the ultimate fusion of impactful, heartfelt gospel messaging and his dynamic, often otherworldly melodic and improvisational playing, presented as a free-flowing live concert (punctuated by a handful of studio tracks) with his tastefully grooving, often explosive trio (bassist Joel Powell and drummer Tyson Jackson) and a host of inspiring special guest, including saxophonist Michael Walton (who brings a funky fire to an adventurous romp through “Amazing Grace) and vocalists Wendi Henderson-Wyatt, Amber Bullock, Zebulon Ellis and Kenneth Lowe.
On a purely thematic/narrative level, McGee opens by finding a unique way of praising God through a combination of fancifully arranged gospel tunes (“Wonderful Is Your Name”), hymns (“Amazing Grace,” “The Fount” and a beautiful twist on the spiritually affirming jazz standard “Here’s to Life” (sung by Henderson-Wyatt). The next segment finds McGee and friends exploring the afterlife via the soulful Barry Harris tune (sung tenderly by McGee himself) “Sometimes Today Seems Like Yesterday), Alan Pasqua’s charming travel tune “Highway 14” and a few songs specifically about heaven. Then the pianist returns to the core message of the Gospel, sharing the Truth that “Jesus Christ is the Way” with a gorgeous meditational ballad and reminding us, more whimsically, that it’s all about being written into the “Book of Life.”
Considering the collective anxiety we’ve all been through these past few years, whatever our beliefs, it’s easy to get drawn into the infectious energy of McGee’s closing track which deftly reminds us “The Lord Will Make a Way.” The fact that he titled this album “Vol.1” is a good indication that we’re in for a lot more of his incredible “Gospejazzical” in the future.