- reviewed by LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2003 1 Aug
It's impossible to understand the history of women in gospel music without examining the gospel quartet tradition that began during World War II and enjoyed its highest rate of commercial success during the 1950s. This genre, which includes male groups like the Fairfield Four and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, was originally rooted in the "hard" gospel style favored in many traditional Black Pentecostal churches—a style that includes dramatic, "storytelling" delivery, singing to the ends of the lead vocalist's musical and emotional range, and showmanship. Female groups like The Caravans launched the careers of well- known artists such as Albertina Walker, Dorothy Norwood, and Shirley Caesar, and paved the way for groups such as the Clark Sisters and Witness. Current favorites like Virtue and Trin-i-tee 5:7, and newcomer Ramiyah are the modern, R&B-flavored branches of that venerable root.
With the release of their self-titled debut on Light Records, RiZen becomes the latest group to join this tradition—and probably the most traditionally-styled group to do so since the 1950s. Detroit-based RiZen—comprised of Adriann and Aundrea Lewis, Kanika Trigg, and Ashley Jones—has already been well-received at the Gospel Music Workshop of America board meeting earlier this year. The live album features the production talents of Sanchez Harley (who has his own history as a Motown Records artist and writer) and Ay'Ron Lewis, who wrote several of the songs on the album. It's also among the last projects under the musical direction of Michael Robinson, who passed away suddenly in 2002 at the age of 30.
The album begins with "Lift Him Up," a clean, upbeat song that highlights the group's bold style and tight harmonies. It includes a fun vamp into the church classic "I Don't Know What You Come to Do," and a sassy horn arrangement that has hints of Motor City showmanship. This song illustrates why Harley aptly refers to RiZen's sound as "straight, contemporary church." "Trust and Never Doubt Him" has that classic storytelling feel and lyrics reminiscent of a Caravan song. Bold, throaty lead, old-school ad-libbing, and bluesy keys showcase this new take on an old tradition. Guest vocalists include former Temptations lead singer Ollie Woodson on the urban-contemporary-flavored "Take Care of Me" and big-band conductor/trombonist Chris McDonald on "It's My Turn."
Highlights of this album include "View That City," a toe-tapping update of the familiar song. Lead vocals here have a sermonic quality that reminds one of Shirley Caesar. "We Worship You" is comparatively mellow, featuring breathy background vocals. "Just Can't Tell It" has an energetic, crowd-pleasing feel. "It Will Come to Pass" features phrasing and vocal arrangements that remind one of the Clark Sisters, and "I Long to See You" is gentle, expressing the vocalist's desire to move closer to God. Sweet strings convey the sense of peaceful longing here. Lyrics include: "I long to see You to be with You/Anticipating Your return to carry me/To a place that/I know You have prepared/Just for me where/I know that I will be free/Free for eternity."
If this album has a weak point, it's that some of the songs are too long. Granted, this is a live recording of traditional music, so the singers and the congregation are supposed to feed off each other's energy and to be spontaneous. Still, this reviewer—a sho'nuff church girl—squirmed in her seat as several songs outlasted their interest and their fresh lyrical content by several minutes. At points—particularly on some of the songs with a praise-and-worship vibe—lead vocals were overbearing and heavy, even for a genre where a powerful, authoritative lead is valued.
RiZen's debut album is definitely worth a listen, not only because these women have some serious vocal chops, but also because their presence represents a smart, modern revival of one of the key traditions in gospel music. My sense is that RiZen will join contemporaries like Keith "Wonderboy" Johnson in preserving the quartet tradition as members of the old guard move on to their heavenly rewards. If you love the contemporary, R&B-influenced girl groups of gospel but need to return to "the old landmark" every now and then, this album will be a welcome addition to your collection.