Rediscovered: an occasional aria on some forgotten favorite

“Much Too High a Price,” Larnelle Harris, From a Servant’s Heart. I began my short lived career as a gospel pianist pretty typically as a teenager: no training, no real applicable sense of the stylistic history, and no reliable way of remedying this situation myself. I played piano for a group that was fortunate enough to have a music-theory mind for a manager, and what he couldn’t teach me (mainly technical skills at the keyboard), he coaxed MNP into providing. I regret to say that MNP’s efforts were probably a lost cause from the beginning (I have never had patience to learn the proper way to do much of anything if I can fake it passably with some easier method). But MNP did teach me how to listen and develop an ear for the fine moments that make so much of the crap tolerably unimportant. Driving to the college where we used rehearsals room for my lessons, MNP would play me this or that thing - Take 6, Anita Baker, First Call … it was all new to me - to illustrate something we’d been talking or just to broaden my myopic horizons. I soaked up everything she said and told me to listen to, even the stuff I couldn’t begin to grasp, which was most of it. But the first real moment of illumination came when she turned me onto “Much Too High a Price.”First of course is Harris’s voice, which is among the three or four finest instruments in Christian music. His range, not just his vertical reach but his ability to color tones and shade phrasings, gives him a command of material that lesser vocalists (which is to say, most of them) have to fake with frilly ornamentals or contrived arpeggiations or overwrought melisma of the kind Mariah Carey popularized. In “Much Too High,” Harris goes from ending a chorus in big, full-voice tones to delicately rendering a bridge built from bars of “There is a Fountain.” To call this perfectly calibrated delicacy a “falsetto” can’t begin to do it justice. Harris’s vocal dexterity possesses something like a symphonic reach. But it’s not just the voice. There’s the song itself, which melds lyrics about the contemplation of unmerited grace to a melody that shades in and out of minor and major chords - a melodic shading that beautifully captures the precarious mix of guilt and rapture that in many ways defines the evangelical religious experience. The verses so deftly interleave shame (for human failing) and celebration (for unearned redemption) that the chorus’s opening lines - “You paid much too high a price for me / your tears, your blood, the pain / to have my soul just stirred at times / yet never truly changed” - teeter painfully between the fact of the soul’s inconstancy and the hardearned knowledge of self that makes such an admission of spiritual perfidy possible. “You deserve a fiery love,” the chorus concludes, “that won’t ignore your sacrifice / because you paid much too high a price.” This is as close as the song - like the soul, really - ever comes to certainty: as the apostle put it, “that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” It’s just that Larnelle Harris makes it sound so much better. Of course I didn’t get any of this at the time I first heard it. I was more enamored with the piano accompaniment and the passing tones and that pivotal major six in the early bars of the verses than I was the soul’s perfidy. But the song still makes me smile, which for the perfidiously souled is no small mercy.

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