Washington composer Norma Brooks’ ‘Psalm Full of Soul’ spans genres

From left, Vanessa Williams, Vince Evans and Norma Brooks collaborated on the album “Psalm Full of Soul.”
Photo provided

If you started playing the album “Psalm Full of Soul” without knowing what it was, you might think you were listening to a classic 1970s reggae band.

The album starts with a phrase on the drum kit, the signature reggae rhythm guitar and horns and the voice-over of a man with a Jamaican accent reading a biblical verse about peace in in Jerusalem.

But soon enough, two women sing Psalm 122 in Hebrew, the horns begin a jazz solo and vocalist Lena Seikaly sings in Arabic.

Welcome to “Psalm Full of Soul,” an album that spans many genres — including reggae, gospel, electronic, funk, blues and traditional Jewish liturgical music — all the while being guided by a deep connection to Jewish text provided by Norma Brooks, the album’s co-composer and one of its vocalists. The album was released a little less than a year ago, but there will be a release party for it on April 23 at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club.

“I think what holds the album together — and I know this might sound like a cliché — but what holds it together is a soulfulness and a connectedness,” Brooks said. “The music always comes after a lengthy study of the text.”

The second track is a classic gospel song, with the piano-backed voice of Vanessa Williams singing from Psalm 24 in English — “Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord and who will sing and rejoice in God’s holy place?” — followed by Brooks singing the psalm in Hebrew and gospel vocal layering with a chorus.

The album then moves onto “Eternal Light,” a gospel-blues rendition of verses from Genesis and Exodus, featuring the vocals of Williams and the Blind Boys of Alabama (who will perform at the album release party). Brooks said she originally wrote the song in Hebrew for the High Holidays and that it is based on a text she found in a machzor, the High Holiday prayer book. She said she was captivated by the liturgical image of the light of creation being “God’s living treasure.”

The 10 other tracks on the album continue to set liturgical verses to various genres — including the more experimental “Tzadik KaTamar Yifrah,” which places the words of Psalm 92 with some vocal distortion in front of an upbeat electronic soundscape.

“Psalm Full of Soul” is a collaboration between Brooks, who lives and works in the Washington area and has created Jewish liturgical music for decades, Vince Evans, a multi-genre composer and performer, and Williams, a gospel producer and vocalist.

Collaboration across genres is nothing new for Brooks, 70, who was in a Latin-influenced Washington band in the 1990s and led a tri-lingual Spanish-Chinese-English children’s choir in New York City before that.

“Many people in the Jewish community only know me as a composer and performer of Jewish liturgical music,” she said. “But I’ve done a lot of seemingly different projects that all have in common that they are collaborative. In each case some person was an anchor carrying it or inspiring it.”

For “Psalm of Soul,” the collaboration between Brooks, Evans and Williams was born out of a classic case of 21st century serendipity — Brooks lost a computer hard drive that contained a song she was working on.

A producer suggested that Evans could help her quickly recreate what she lost, and when she saw him work, she immediately appreciated what Williams, who was trained at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, was capable of doing.

“After watching him work on just a few measures and seeing what he created, I looked at my friend who was with me in the studio and I knew we were thinking the same thing: We gotta kidnap this person,” she said. “It was extraordinary.”

Evans and Brooks started working together, and when Brooks said she wanted a chorus on a track they were working on, Evans brought in Williams, who Evans said could sing all the parts of a chorus.

Brooks said the first time she heard Williams sing in Hebrew, she was brought to tears.

“When you have a composition and you bring it to someone that it speaks to — it’s not so much that you didn’t dream of the place, it’s more that they take it to new heights and capture its depth and richness,” said Brooks.

Brooks said she was impressed by how much Hebrew Williams, who is black and not Jewish, knew through gospel music and attending church. Over the course of the five years the three musicians collaborated on this project, Brooks attended Williams’ church and Williams attended services with Brooks at Fabrangen, the independent lay-led havurah in Washington that Brooks attends.

Brooks said Fabrangen was important to the album — she was able to try out different versions of the songs by teaching them to the congregation. She also studied the Jewish texts on the album with members, particularly the late Rabbi Max Ticktin, who was a professor at George Washington University.

In fact, before Ticktin died last summer, he asked Brooks gently whether she was having a psychological block that prevented her from completing the album. Brooks then promised Ticktin she would complete the album before the High Holidays, and she was able to play the album for him in his hospital room before he died.

“This album took a whole village and a whole community to make,” she said. “Each of these songs has a history.”

The launch party for the album “Psalm Full of Soul” will take place April 23 at 7 p.m. at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club. For information and tickets, visit bethesdabluesjazz.com.

galtshuler@midatlanticmedia.com

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