Stan Whitmire’s Old Time Gospel Piano
Thankfully, only the title of this album sounds like a show at Branson.
Whitmire’s cd of old-timey gospel standards has been in my car for the past however many weeks (months?) since Mark Lowry was in town, and it’s captivated me, even though finally it leaves me disappointed (more on that in a moment). As you might recall from a while back, I’ve been looking for some straightahead get-along, well-played solo piano that instead of relying on ginned up orchestral majesty taps into the deeply satisfying rhythms and memorable melodies and happy harmonies of those old songs. To access the best parts of gospel music on the solo piano, it takes the patience of the singularly focused player undistracted by back-up.
Whitmire’s may not be exactly that album, but it’s the closest thing I’ve found. To begin with, Whitmire’s technical facility at the keyboard is as nearly flawless as it comes. If he didn’t play this way in public, you’d think it was a confection of studio overdubbing. As it is, the runs and fills and arpeggiated phrases pop out at you with the kind of careful articulation (and authenticity) typically reserved for classical players. It sometimes seems as though Whitmire is a symphony unto himself.
Few people in gospel music can play this well this reliably, which is why, of course, so many fall back on the string cheese of synthesized symphonies and orchestral back-ups to cover for them when they record a solo project. To be good, solo gospel piano, especially the old stuff, has to manage to convey the vocal richness and complexity of four-part close harmony while also not losing the unique accompaniment style that defines the southern gospel player: it’s about the light touch of bridging vocal phrases when people are singing, but it’s also about jumping out into the limelight between verses or during turnarounds to quickly and evocatively establish a melody or leading theme or key change. The latter part most gospel pianists have down cold. But conveying the vocal style of gospel harmonics requires more than just tone painting, though it requires that too. It’s a matter of using careful shifts in registers, pacing, and emphasis to suggest where the harmonic or melodic center of the song would be if it were being sung. Sounds easy maybe, but remember: there are four voices in a quartet but only two hands to your average pianist.
Whitmire is strongest when he sticks closest to the unadorned convention and quartet styles: “I’m Winging My Way,” “I’ve Got that Old Time Religion” (minus the contrived and hokey bar-room and Rockettes ending), and “Do Right and Come Smiling Through” — all songs that succeed by effectively avoiding the slide into excessive ragtime or bluesy flavoring that muddy things up stylistically in almost all the other cases.
But those three songs are enough for me. They capture the effusive pull of the church-lady strides and the head-thrown-back boomchuck exuberance long associated with the best gospel players. In addition to this, though, Whitmire has brought to these songs the eyes and ears of a musical theoretician. He doesn’t do anything that wouldn’t have necessarily been beyond Eva Mae or Rosa Nell or Tommy Fairchild or other masters of the style in their prime. But Whitmire consciously weaves into these arrangements subtleties of structure and thematic figures in a way that foregrounds not just the tunefulness of southern gospel but its musical sophistication as well. In so doing, he reminds us that we diminish ourselves and the gospel tradition to mistake its simple beauties for aesthetic simplism. As it turns out, those old masters only made it look easy.
My biggest complaint is that the album tries too hard too much of the time. In striving to faithfully capture the vocal intensity of the southern gospel style, Whitmire’s arrangements achieve harmonic verisimilitude at the expense of listenability (though to be fair, this is a critique that could be made of a lot of southern gospel singers and groups). Too many of the songs contain so much fancy-fingered filigree that they create a claustrophobic, mildly oppressive atmosphere. Nary a beat of breathing space is left anywhere in any song. What white space there is (usually near the beginning of songs) quickly gets smothered by dazzling but dizzying displays of virtuosity. “Goodbye World, Goodbye” is illustrative of what I mean: playing all the vocal parts AND providing fantastically arabesque fills between virtually every vocal phrases may technically capture the song’s frenetic style, but by the end of this and many other songs, you’re left with a suffocating feeling, the desire for someone to open a window or something.
Sometimes it’s the notes you don’t play, and I’m sure an accomplished player such as Whitmire knows this. But that only makes for more disappointment (which is why even or especially people who can arrange their own stuff this well should always collaborate with someone of equal or greater ability). What keeps this good album from being great is not the absence of brilliance but an embarrassment of riches – such an overabundance of ability and insight into the pleasures of the gospel piano that nothing is omitted … and all the oxygen gets sucked out of the room.
PS: I didn’t see David Bruce Murray’s inclusion of Whitmire in his underrated geniuses category until after I posted this, and/but obviously I’d second that emotion.
Update: Let me clarify what I say above about Whitmire not doing anything on this album that some of the old timers couldn’t do: My point was not to suggest (though I inadvertently did, I realize) that Whitmire is no better than your average great sg pianist. In fact, he is, as far as I can tell, probably single most talented player to work in the form. But on this particular project there isn’t anything here that necessarily stands out as clearly beyond the ability of some of the best who’ve been on stage (though of course feel free to disagree with me). On this album, Whitmire seems to be focusing on certain skill sets that are more in line with what an Eva Mae or Rosa Nell et al might have done if they had really pushed themselves. Which makes sense, given the title of the album. Now, whether they have actually played that well before is another question. What isn’t in question though, as far as I’m concerned, is that Whitmire is a superior player in general. I’m sure there are albums out there that bear this out, as David Bruce Murray suggests. But in this case, I was only speaking of the Old Time project. Anyway, I probably could (and definitely should) have been clearer.
Later (related) update: For what it’s worth, reader DA has posted this clip of Eva Mae and the LeFevres on youtube. Idn’t grand?
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