Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago: The Best of Both Worlds
Chicago gospel church choir tries to find a balance using Joel Osteen trademarks and yesterday’s gospel
“What a ship. It’s a kinship, it’s a friendship, it’s a relationship.” Those are the opening words Reverend Clay Evans would warmly declare from the Chicago South side pulpit at Fellowship Baptist Church, which were recited at the top of the church’s radio and television broadcasts for decades. During that time, the Tennessee-bred preacher rose to become one of Chicago’s prominent, well-trusted leaders as well as an enduring key figure in the face of black gospel music. With long-out-of-print albums recorded on Jewel and Savoy Records – and most recently the folded indie label Meek Records – Evans and his church’s esteemed music ministry provided a platform for succulent traditional gospel since the early Eighties. And at their mightiest, Fellowship’s music felt gutsy, unbridled and was unapologetic in its firm grasp for Delta soul and blues. (Reach Beyond the Break, I’m Going Through and the AARC Mass Choir’s I’ve Got a Testimony stand out as their proudest moments.) But as the wind blows and seasons change, so goes those traditions we have long treasured. Since 2000, Evans’ role has been diminished to the status of pastor emeritus as he enjoys the sunnier days of retirement.
A new leader emerges in Charles Jenkins, a fledgling, young and charmingly handsome preacher that uses more charm and youth than Evans’ impeccable old-school wisdom. And in the new age of black gospel’s uncertainty, as it tries to bend to the curvaceous temptations of Rick Ross hip-hop and white-bred worship, Jenkins postures the children of the inherited Fellowship into the comfortable sing-a-long choruses that normally fill the edifices led by Joel Osteen, evidenced best on the new album, The Best of Both Worlds. “Awesome” opens with a sweet, highly repetitive verse sung in unison. Then, Jenkins uses Kirk Franklin chit-chat to help lift the song’s urgency as it sweeps into a chorus that feels like a never-ending ROTC drill. Similar worship-y strains are adopted on “Close to You,” which ironically borrows elements of below-the-radar choir anthems like Donald Lawrence’s “Prayer of Jabez” and Lamar Campbell’s “More Than Anything.” Even “I Will Live” seems like a deliberate attempt at trying to cross-over as it strangely works the sing-a-long party disco of the Black Eyed Peas’“I Got a Feeling” into its melodic infrastructure. This obvious shift into determines the differences between Fellowship’s matriarch and its predecessor: Jenkins prefers to talk with the grace of a polished seminary lecturer, hardly singing like a singer, while Evans goes for the gut and exudes the same ooze coming from B.B. King’s school of thought.
Jenkins may be the sterling silver star of the show – thanks to his marquee name placement and for penning more than half of the album’s selections – but the choir members, albeit unaccredited, are the ones who keeps the ship at sail. Anita Wilson leads the safe congregation-friendly songs (“Worthy Is Your Name,” “Praise On My Mind”), while Kevin Vasser works up a Marvin Sapp spunk on the groovy “Joy Will.”
While looking for the best of Fellowship’s evolving world, disappointments do arise.“Giving Honor to God” features lead vocalist Bishop Paul Morton on a Gerald Levert-sounding slow jam, using faint Marcus Miller-Luther Vandross bass tricks. Except for the closer, it does a sloppy job in whipping old Baptist cliches into something meant for the boudoir. “A Word for Me” feels like Charles Nicks leftovers. And the merry-go-round of “I Will Live,” tucked inside its repetitive chorus, becomes an irritating migraine.
The embellished title of The Best Of Both Worlds seems to be more of a tribute to the same-titled album used on Chicago r&b crooner R. Kelly and his Jay-Z than a fair balance of traditional and contemporary. If anything, Jenkins and Fellowship appears to have pleasant memories of yesterday, and offers a few mass choir morsels into the cuisine, particularly the ten-minute Clay Evans-guested “Fellowship Medley” and Rick Robinson’s “Grace and Mercy.” But The Best of Both Worlds doesn’t make enough strides in balancing contemporary with traditional. This is more of an all-you-can-eat buffet for the likes of VaShawn Mitchell and Donald Lawrence, then it is a nod to the sweaty, soul-drenched gusto that defined Fellowship’s sound. Plus, the production is too clean, too overdubbed and lacks some of the excitement and spontaneity of Fellowship’s past efforts. Still, it’s a better disc than originally forecasted, and is far better than most of the stuff coming from behind the four walls of gospel’s leading institutions today.
J MATTHEW COBB
- Release Date: 12 June 2012
- Label: EMI
- Producer: Rick Robinson
- Spin This: “Awesome,” “Fellowship Medley”