Catholic Hymnbook Jumpstarted
Reviewed by Bob LaMendola on Dec. 1, 2006. OK, you've heard Christian rock. You've heard gospel. You've heard worship music and classical religious chorales. But here's betting you haven't heard them all together at the same time -- even within the same hymn -- and set to a calypso beat. That's the concept of an ambitious new collection of rearranged, refreshened church music created by master-of-all-keyboards Les Blachut, titled 'Catholic Hymnbook Jumpstarted.' Blachut, a Berklee College of Music graduate from Florida, has taken 15 'sacred standards' as he calls them and turned them on their ear, with the assistance of a cadre of fine musicians and singers. A jazz vibes player with a soft spot for Caribbean sounds, Blachut has penned arrangements that skip with off-beats, tricky meters and clever rhythms often played in unison, fusion style. In his hands, these 15 hymns, some of them 300 years old and covered centuries ago by the likes of Bach and Vivaldi, now taste of tangy world music. Blachut and his band transform the dirgy standard 'A Closer Walk with Thee' into a fun ride to the beach. He has trumpeter Tom Swayzee give us a New Orleans-sounding solo, then he follows himself with a passage on the steel drums that recalls every happy island tune you've ever heard. Somehow, though, he pulls this off while still preserving the song's worshipful theme in the operatic-sounding vocals of Dr. Wilhelmina King. His version of 'O Sacred Head Surrounded by Thorns' struts with a mid-tempo R&B groove that could have come straight off pop-gospel radio. Then he twists it around with a jazzy turn on the vibes and a searing electric solo by guitarist Sandy Poltarac. Most of the hymns on Jumpstarted stand on a base of calypso mixed with jazz, then spiced with other sounds. 'Immaculate Mary' could pass as a Christmas carol, with bells. 'Just as I am Without One Plea' shines with a Santana-like fiery solo from guitarist Poltarac. The bluesy finale, 'I Just Want to Thank You Lord,' features brief but heartfelt vocals by King and two other singers. Blachut's mark is all over this project. He arranged, recorded and produced the tunes in his home studio. He plays no fewer than eight kinds of keyboards (including glockenspiel), plus recorder, bass trumpet and percussion. He says his goal in this project was to connect a number of disparate musical styles not usually heard together and harness them to the mission of praising God. He did that and more. True, not all the tunes are dynamite, and a few may strike some ears as not quite finished. But the CD works. It will inspire churchgoers with it's obvious religious sincerity and traditional roots. And at the same time, it will please those of us who just like a good tune.