I first met John Lumpkin several years ago, when we both competed in the finals of Guitar Center Drum Off. An imposing character both physically and musically, Lumpkin destroyed us all, combining finesse with ferocious chops. He’s a total badass, on par with today’s most progressive jazz and gospel players.
The following year, I again signed up for the Drum Off. As with the previous year, I clawed my way to the local finals. On the judging panel was none other than Mr. Lumpkin. Talk about intimidating. (I was sent through to the regional finals, where I was chewed up and spit out by an equally-impressive gospel drummer. I was told I came in a close second. Not sure I believed them.)
At any rate, Lumpkin and I became friends, catching up with each other at locals’ shows, like the time he backed the amazing Esperanza Spalding or the day we double-billed at Jacksonville Jazz Festival. So when I saw he and his band were releasing an album of original music, I had to grab a copy. Then I saw the title.
Then I saw the song titles: “The Red Sea,” “Revelation,” “Abide.”
Oh no, please, I thought. Not another gospel album.
I should explain, my aversion here being two-fold. As an outspoken atheist, I’m squeamish when it comes to all things spiritual. It’s a gut reaction, and I can’t really justify it. It just … is. Couple this with my disdain for formulaic, genre-beholded composition, and I shut down, stop listening, run screaming. And this from a drummer who’s played in a gospel band. Yes, long ago, yours truly was asked to perform at a black church in Orlando, full-on traditional gospel at maximum volume. And I am not afraid to say I loved it. And I was filled with something otherworldly, too. Some might call it the spirit of the Lord; I prefer to think of it as the spirit of music, the spirit of brother- (and sister-) hood, the spirit of giving every ounce of energy to the moment.
If that last paragraph wasn’t filled with enough contradictions, here’s another: I love John Lumpkin’s new album.
Wisely, Lumpkin placed the mind-blowing modern-jazz piece “The Conqueror” first. A synth swell introduces the tune, heralding what might have been a cheeseball fusion number, but instead rolls out into a magnificent mid-tempo brass-driven funk. Lumpkin, again wisely, turns the show over to the brass section from the get-go. Alphonso Horne and Jordan Pettay lay down the head of the tune, followed by a brazen trumpet solo by Horne. A saw-toothed synth wades behind it all, giving the piece a mysterious complexion.
Then Lumpkin brings it, dueling with Horne about midway through, exhibiting both his mad chops and his ear for improvisation. It’s truly an inspired if too-short moment. Horne’s sax solo follows, supported by Yasushi Nakamura’s upright bass. Then back to a restatement of the head for just a bar or two, before an abrupt close.
Second comes the ridiculously grooving mid-tempo swing of “The Red Sea.” Bordering closely on traditional jazz, “The Red Sea” capitalizes on a stellar cast of musicians who execute like seasoned vets, developing ideas, collapsing and refolding them, twisting and turning the themes while pushing each other to play at the height of their abilities. Then comes the third act, a head-spinning Latin-jazz section featuring another Lumpkin solo and an atonal horn battle. It would have been the best tune on the record were it not for …
“Revelation,” a deep-pocket shuffle with huge spaces in which the main melody develops. Though the tune could be considered a ballad, Lumpkin and crew slam their way through it. This is not to say it’s all bombast; there are sublime moments, so quiet as to be almost inaudible. But the groove is so thick and delicious, it flows slow and hard, like honey warming over an open flame. And like “Red Sea,” “Revelation” offers a mid-tune surprise, this time in the form of an electric bass loop over which the brass section leisurely wanders.
It’s these twists that keep The Devotion refreshing. The title track, a sweet if somewhat rote smooth-jazzer, falls short of my expectations, considering the first half of the album’s heft. And the Milton Felcher-penned number, despite its pointillistic, odd-time riffage, falls squarely into the modern-gospel genre of which I wrote earlier, complete with sermon.
But I get it. It’s heartfelt. It’s familiar and therefore comforting. And under it all is Lumpkin’s jaw-dropping drumming, which always gets me stoked.
The closing track, an R&B ballad, features the soul-melting vocals of Christie Dashiell and more wonderful horn work by, yes, Horne. It’s a fitting slow-burn closer to an album that immerses itself in traditional music – gospel, jazz, R&B – and at the same time flips the script, allowing the musicians to exhibit their hard-earned skills, and giving John Lumpkin a wide-open canvas on which to paint. For a listener like me, this was a game-changer, and kept me listening to sections I might have otherwise skipped.