Maybe it was because she was born in New Orleans, the first city of jazz, that Mahalia Jackson brought so much ornamentation to the traditional gospel songbook, stretching her phrases with the grace of a horn and fracturing single syllables into many-noted chromatic melodies. Or maybe the profound vocal gift she was born with would have ensured her a place among the greatest singers in any style she chose. At any rate, her accomplishments in American spiritual music remain unequaled.
During the last 20 years of her life, when Jackson recorded for Columbia, her voice was the defining sound of gospel. She cut hundreds of songs during that period and became an inspirational figure in the civil rights movement, performing alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C., singing at his funeral, championing black education, and running her own chain of restaurants. Now Columbia follows the fine Jackson box set Gospels, Spiritual & Hymns with three CDs that commemorate her 90th birthday.
In Concert Easter Sunday 1967 and Recorded Live in Europe During Her Latest Concert Tour are reissues with some additional tracks. The new Sunday Morning Prayer Meeting with Mahalia compiles studio and live cuts from 1955 to 1965. All three are good, yet only Live in Europe is essential. It captures Jackson at her peak in her most common setting, singing standards with only longtime piano accompanist Mildred Falls. Jackson runs her cool-water voice in torrents that spin anywhere she chooses. She improvises breathless whispers, soaring crescendos, and additional choruses and verses, and she ignores or stretches the rules of rhythm with her phrasing; she performs however the spirit moves her, which it did deeply and often in this clarion performance. Slightly more ornate orchestrations accompany Jackson for some of the Easter concert, but her performance is subdued, perhaps due to the heart trouble that sidelined her for the previous three years and eventually killed her in 1972. Although the compilation is an excellent sampler of Jackson in studio and on stage, its unreleased tracks--including a live "Elijah Rock," which also appears on the two other discs--add nothing to her already well-preserved legacy. --Ted Drozdowski