Mack Brandon, Conductor
Ramapo College of New Jersey, February 26, 2005:
I arrive at the Berrie Center, here at Ramapo College, extra early after a tough Microeconomics exam with Professor Wagner. I immediately meet one of my students from Solartech, Aaron Freeman, who’s singing with the choir later this afternoon. I am so glad to see him before the show. I have a great chat with Helen, who’s volunteering here today as an usher. We have met before and she is very enthusiastic about today’s show. I have a warm conversation with Reverend Irving Green, who’s the assistant reverend at the church where the choir originates and received his masters degree here at Ramapo. I see Mack Brandon, who mentored me into music journalism. I am now here to review him and the choir he leads and directs. So very good to see the professor again, it’s been too long. Inside the Sharp Theatre I can hear the musicians warm up and they sound fantastic. I am getting a real good feeling, right here and right now.
At 3:20 P.M. the lights dim and a solo piano introduction, with percussion chimes, accompanies a single dancer in a white flowing dress up the aisle and around the side of the theatre, a nice effect. The Conference Choir of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, directed by Mack Brandon is about to begin. The choir’s opening number is, “I Wanna Go.” Mack Brandon leads on vocals in an answer/response form that’s joyful and charismatic. The delivery is somewhat subdued to start, then the choir kicks in and the excitement rushes out over the audience. Oh yes! “We Have Come To Praise” follows as our spirits are raised very high. We all stand to join in the effervescent and strong spiritual rush.
The next arrangement begins with Mack Brandon on a visionary piano intro that is tasteful and majestic, emphatic and grandiose. The band kicks in to a solid groove, as the drummer is totally persuasive behind a clear partition. This is happy and uplifting, cool and steady. A tactful-touch groove and the full complement Hammond B-3 organ provide a ‘fat’ and robust musical backdrop to Mack’s exemplary playing. The next song begins with Mack playing a slow and moody piano solo that is selective and sultry. This musical passage segues into a jazzy stride piano groove that carries an excellent melody. This is a consummate piano solo that is now marching along and I can salute the maestro. I witness Mack’s musical prowess, which I sensed and felt, but never experienced as his student. The choir listens, grooves and expresses support as Mack solos with intermittent applause, accolades and joyful laughter. His playing is exquisite. The choir softly refrains, “all things are possible, if you only believe,” as Mack exclaims, “it’s getting good now!”
A boogie-woogie piano introduces the next number, which leads into a spirited answer/response that is both sincere and expressive. I am jumpin’ in my seat. I witness excellent ensemble direction from Mack Brandon. A lone trombone blows from the balcony. The ‘bone’ is blowin’ as he comes down the aisle to join the choir on stage. Now the house is rockin’ as steam can be seen coming out the vents of the roof. Mack Brandon tells us that there are actually two choirs here tonight: The New Jersey Conference Choir and the Ramapo College Gospel Chorus.
“Faithful” follows with a dreamy, ethereal piano intro complemented with well-timed glissandos to showcase Mack’s superior chops. The female vocal soloist is captivating with creatively selected vibrato and genuine sincerity. She sings, “faithful to me,” and easily reaches her high register sustain vibrato note and then goes even higher for a dramatic and powerful effect. The arrangement leads into, “Holy Is The Lord,” which is deliberate and sincere. The delivery is genuine, dignified and embracing. The music moves up a minor 2nd as the voices raise the roof in unison. The sound is satiated and tenacious. Raise your hands in salutation. “Holy Ghost” is spirited and riotous. Everyone claps and the audience is in this enthusiastically. The spirits are raising, the heavens are dancing, so let the souls sing high and happy in joyful celebration.
“Gonna Make It” begins with a slow, solemn, sincere and thoughtful piano intro that is righteous and conveys respect. Please stop and reflect; this melody reveals the inner soul. The music continues slow and dramatically emphatic. Four female vocalists, Sisters in Spirit, take center stage to perform some excellent harmonies that are quite extraordinary in musical thought. They complement the presentation with their strong sustained vibrato. The harmonies are precise, rich, full and sincere and execute some very challenging voicing. They sing the refrain, “never lose its power.” WOW, this is outstanding!
The last song of the first set, "You Brought Me From A Mighty Long Way," is strong and sung with conviction. The vocal refrain, “you brought me a mighty long way,” is delivered in a hypnotic and captivating fashion. The distinguished lead vocalist reprises, “you brought me.” This singer, "Mother" Mary Graham, is extremely soulful, gritty and genuine. This truly heartfelt delivery is sung from deep down inside her soul. She reprises repeatedly, “thank you Lord.” Feel it!
Liz Black, from WFDU radio, introduces the second set. Her radio show is called “Gospel Groove” and is broadcast from 1:15 to 6:00 A.M. Mack Brandon directs the opening song, “Majesty.” The music is measured and quiet. The added violin solo complements the arrangement and adds to the reserved, righteous and dignified presentation. “I Do Worship” begins slow and delicate until the full choir kicks in for that big sound. The euphonic texture and dynamic contrast displays the superior vocal control and experience of the choir. The harmonies are gorgeous and the emotional strength is powerful, as all the voices come together as one.
“What He’s Done For Me” is a high-spirited jump and shout. The tempo is hot and the energy is tremendous. Everyone claps along with the strength of the unison vocal arrangement. The Hammond B-3 is warm and powerful. The spirits are high as the choir salutes the Lord. Mack conducts with dramatic and thrusting arm gestures to clearly direct the band. “I Need Thee” is slow and reserved, delicate and gentle. The piano intro is righteous and dignified. We all sing together, “I need thee every hour, I need thee.” The slow plodding march in 4/4-time evolves from a cappella voices to a soulful and huge ‘raise the roof’ delivery. The answer/response form, “bless me sweet Jesus,” is deliberate, forceful and powerful, as it emphasizes the strong beat on the ones. The full ensemble refrains, “bless me Jesus.” I love the joyful smiles on all the happy and inspired faces. I can feel the strength of faith!
“Show Me The Way” raises the spirits to the heavens. Wow, these voices are rockin’. The rhythm is full and powerful. We all sing in turn, “show me the way Lord.” A long dream sequence follows as a graceful dancer floats on the stage in a brilliant red flowing dress. A solo singer, Doreen Washington, comes down the aisle in a white hooded outfit to join the actors on stage portraying Jesus carrying the cross. This delicate vocal offering lightly serenades, “That’s My Son.” This is an outstanding stage presentation as she chants the refrain, “he’s my son.” Slowly and emphatically singing, “Jesus.” Mack Brandon carefully complements the vocal delivery with a delicate and tasteful piano accompaniment.
A 6 year old girl vocalist, Ja'Neil Humphrey, sings a touching duet with Ra'chel Herbert from the Ramapo College Gospel Chorus, that brings down the house. This is huge! The youthfulness of Ja'Neil's presentation and innocence of her technique only endears the audience into a swooning empathy of this very special moment.
“Stand Up!” is a powerful 4/4 tempo that rocks the Berrie Center. This is hot and cookin’. Everyone is standing. The talented male vocalist, Kenny Sullivan, is engaging and inspirational.
“Praise Him” is slow and reserved as we all catch our collective breath. We all sing together with a dignified strength from above. The ensemble is together, simmering in a deep heated fire of faith. The Hammond B-3 is ‘fat’ with complementary piano flourishes from Mack. The dynamics are starkly in contrast, from a loud unison presentation to a very quiet and reserved whisper.
Mack Brandon thanks the audience for coming out “to share” and hopes that everyone is “edified.” The final composition, “My God Is Wonderful” is spirited, joyful, powerful and satisfying. The last soloist, Doreen Washington, can sing, shout and easily deliver both with strength and sincerity.
This musical experience is fantastic! I am blown right out of here. I always realized Mack Brandon was a brilliant multi-talented musician and leader, but now I have witnessed it for myself. Mack Brandon is an important mentor to me here at Ramapo College with just one special class, Jazz in American Culture. He sincerely changed my life’s path. He single handedly started me on this enjoyable and fulfilling career of music journalism.
I am so overjoyed to experience the overwhelming talents of this Gospel Conference Choir. The energy and sincerity of the ensemble voices is something to behold. The extraordinary talent of each of the many solo singers is something I will remember for the rest of my life!
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