Pickens' credentials as a jazz musician are unassailable, with discography credits going all the way back to 1949; he's recorded with the likes of Eddie Harris, Elvin Jones, Clark Terry, Marian McPartland, Louie Bellson, Von Freeman, and many more jazz luminaries. Here, Pickens partners with musical pros from his native Chicago to complement his bebop-oriented piano playing. There is strong improvisational work throughout, not only from Pickens but from his local "soul-mates." Enjoy Ari Brown's tenor sax choruses on "Let Us Break Bread Together," Larry Gray's solo bass work on "Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive," Tito Carillo's thoughtful note choices on "Jesus Loves Me," and of course Pickens' own strong solo voice on each tune.
I found myself smiling over and over again as I listened to this recording. From the easy loping pace of the opening "Let Us Break Bread Together," to the straight bop sounds of "Forgive our Sins As We Forgive" and "Piedad," to the swinging piano duet between Pickens and his daughter Bethany on "Doxology," the whole set is just delightful. Highlights include Pickens' two solo pieces, "A Mighty Fortress," and "Here I Am Lord." If you know the former tune, you've probably heard it as a big, majestic choir-driven anthem; here Pickens miraculously turns it into a delicate, contemplative piece for personal inspiration.
Arguably, it isn't a stretch to put most African American spirituals into a jazz context, given their typical bluesy feel. But only two of the ten pieces on JazzSpirit, Vol. 1 come from that tradition; the rest are mostly from the Western European "organ and choir" form that don't lend themselves so easily to jazz harmony and syncopation. But Pickens not only pulls it off, he makes this sacred music sound like it was meant for jazz all along.