Charlie Haden and Hank Jones: “Come Sunday”

I’ve read a handful of press releases and advance reviews of Come Sunday, the new collaboration from Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, and I’ve seen the material selected for this project described in several different ways. These are songs of power, we are told, and songs of freedom; they are folk songs, and American songs. I can’t disagree with any of this, yet I also can’t help but be a bit baffled that anyone could miss the more obvious point, which is that these are religious songs. They are sacred songs. They are Christian songs. Even the album’s title points to the Lord’s Day as an event, one to be awaited with hopeful anticipation.

Many of the songs here can only rightly be called hymns; several of them are what we think of as Christmas songs (“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”), and others Easter (“The Old Rugged Cross,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”). Hymns are folk songs in a sense, and they are treated as such here; they are songs we pass down, one generation to the next, and they are sometimes given different inflections, but always treated with reverence, because what these songs are about, and how these songs are expressed… well, these things matter. The hymns selected have power because, though this album is instrumental, we know the words. We know these songs as holiday favorites that speak to our souls year-round with a distinctly Christian hopefulness, a resurrection faith. They are given a folksy context by the presence of gospel songs, spirituals, and the title song, a Duke Ellington composition. Meanwhile, the hymns remind us that these other songs are more than just folk songs. They carry history, meaning, and power.

Bassist Haden and jazz piano legend Jones– the latter was 91, and still a touring musician, when these sessions took place, and has since deceased– collaborated in this small, intimate setting once before. The album, Steal Away, came out in 1995, and was a different sort of record than this one. Yes, it picked up on some sacred songs and spirituals, but it also had less explicitly religious folk songs, even protest songs. It was an album about a different kind of power, and it was both solemn and rousing. It scaled great heights. Come Sunday is more reverent, more introspective, more quiet. It’s a hushed, Sunday morning whisper, though not at all unworthy of a few Hosanna’s.

It’s an album that celebrates church music, but it’s also very much a jazz album, which gives it its power. The performances are reverent, yes, but hardly lifeless. There’s incredible interplay and chemistry here, making the album warm and soul-stirring. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is a fine example of the record’s quiet strength. We all know the tune, and it takes no time at all to pick up on it here. They play it straight, but not without passion. Jones plays a verse, then Haden plays it, then the two instruments combine their voices. It’s played with great feeling; that feeling comes not from a sense of exploration so much as from the pleasure of expressing this song’s timeless beauty, giving voice to something so deep and profound. These two musicians– both giants of jazz– are doing heavy lifting here. That may seem like an odd metaphor for an album so graceful and elegant, but it’s true: They take this work seriously, and don’t shy away from the task of revealing what these songs still have to tell us.

These songs speak to our hearts, so it is fitting, I suppose, that the prevailing idea here is one of intimacy; Come Sunday never sounds like anything more or less than two men, positioned very close to one another in the same room, making beautiful music together. But the songs also speak to the external: Hymns and spirituals are not only about what goes on inside us, but also outside and around us. So it’s equally fitting that this album is a shared experience– moments held closely between two musicians, and the listener, who is blessed with an invitation into this sacred space.

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