At Bard’s LUMA Theater Saturday night Damien Sneed concluded his Catskill Jazz Factory sponsored trilogy with the program “Sanctified Soul: 1960’s to Today.” There was not an empty seat in the house. Sneed is a multi-talented performer and I have praised him before. While the focus of this concert was on religious themes, some of the performances were so ornamented and arranged that they appeared at times to verge on the secular while tailgating the spiritual.
Opening with an improvised piano and vocal version of the “Our Father,” one could grasp Sneed’s aspirations to improvise with voice and piano. The ivories segued into the Nigerian Worship Song “Today Oh” as the five person chorus, The Levites chimed in. The dynamic interaction of Sneed with the chorus was thrilling. They moved on to “Oh Lord We Give Thee Praise” by Rodney Bryant that communicated religious uplift. With “There is a Balm in Gilead” The Levites raised the religious pitch to a higher level of spiritual meditation. Both Sneed and The Levites took things further with “You Got to Move.” Here there was fabulous unity and I was really moved beyond where I thought I could be moved. This was the premature climax of the concert for me.
Sneed descended that remarkable mountain by doing a little improvisation with the chorus which led to a youthful composition of Sneed’s “A Place Called There,” which he wrote while a student at Howard University; it sang of bewilderment, poverty, slight ambition and confusion in an authentic manner. “Let It Be To You” by Tekesha Russell followed, which gave the chorus some fine ensemble moments. Sneed wrote “Broken to Minister” with the only male in the chorus, Linny Smith, a New Yorker from birth. This song examined the plight of failure and re-birth while it layered meditation with hope as Linny sang with polish and deep emotion. They adopted Kathy Taylor’s arrangement of “Oh How Precious” with good results, but they closed the opening set with “Call Him By His Name,” which nearly equaled the earlier above-the-clouds peak of “You Got to Move.”
The second half opened with Dionne Warwick’s (she was born Warrick but with her name misspelled on her first solo single, she adopted the misspelling as her stage name) “Jesus Will.” I thought this over-arranged and the electronic amplification too loud; it became something resembling a football cheerleader’s chant. The traditional hymn of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was a welcome rebound in spiritual focus. “Love” by Kirk Franklin and “I Love You, I Love You Lord Today” permitted The Levites to take turns at short solos, especially Markita Knight’s operatic voice which might have been more featured. With “My Soul Loves Jesus” Anitra Raquel McKinney cut loose and lifted the ceiling up a few inches.
“You Deserve It” and “I Feel Like Going On” provided good choral blending with some rather fantastic piano tinkling by Sneed. Chenee Campbell sang with notable virtuosity and intensity; she was the youngest choral member (still a student in college) and appears to have a very promising singing career before her. Maitia Washington delivered a marvelous solo rendition of “Precious Lord,” dedicated to Piers Playfair, founder of The Catskill Jazz Factory. They concluded with Twinkie Clark’s “Hallelujah!” which featured more rousing roof-busting rock than piety, yet after that explosion, there was nothing left to say.
The band backing Sneed was good, especially John Mathew Clark on bass and Mark Clark on drums. Keyboardist Marquéz Cassidy appeared to be unfamiliar with some of the repertoire in the first set, but played with confident aplomb in the second half. If you have not yet caught Sneed on stage, you should know that you are missing a powerhouse in the entertainment world. A short video of Sneed working with singers appears below.
The Catskill Jazz Factory will be offering a five-concert series this summer at Bard’s SummerScape Speigeltent on Thursday nights from July 5-August 2. You can book early if you don’t want to miss these jazz highballs.