The last stop on our extended tour of church musical genres takes us to contemporary gospel music. Our guides are the Rev. J. Bass, minister of music for both Dickinson’s New Vision Church and New Directions M.B.C., and William Stinson, who sings with the local group Vernon J & Greater.
Popular music of this kind has never been easier to find. Just look on iTunes, Pandora and last.fm. Its hits are annually nominated for both Grammy and Dove awards. And, of course, it is a Sunday staple at many local churches.
“As a musician, songwriter, singer and choir director, I consider myself to perform a mix that lies between traditional and contemporary,” Bass said. “As I continue to attend gospel music conferences, what I have realized is that even those we now consider traditional were considered contemporary by their own generation.”
As church music goes, contemporary gospel may lie in the midrange of difficulty. Bass said that being able to read musical notation, even to sight read it, was very helpful, but that a number of celebrated performers had instead played by ear alone.
“While singing from a hymnal can be soul stirring, the free-flowing expressions of being able to sing contemporary gospel music can have a great impact,” he said. “You aren’t limited to the paper. Most choir directors use the opportunity to season the contemporary music as he/she sees fit.”
That improvisational aspect can transform a standard arrangement into something more like jazz and less like classical choral music.
Stinson said that when an entire church adopts it, the experience can be transformational. It also tends to turn public performances into instant churchwide singalongs.
“In the moment, everything just looks brighter,” he said. “The songs mean things to people. It’s personal and they tend to sing along. It can’t be explained, but it can bring you through. The feeling of the Holy Spirit is amazing, refreshing. It overcomes you.”
Stinson said most musicians he knows are more likely to play this form by ear than to conduct a note-for-note correspondence from sheet music.
As for the origins of this popular genre, there is no consensus on any specific source.
“I don’t know that we can put a time stamp or even label a founder,” Bass said. “The message is the same, but there are always very gifted, talented, anointed songwriters and gospel artists who are finding new innovative ways to express the timeless message of Jesus Christ’s coming, burial, resurrection, ascension and soon-to-come return.”
By the way, if I missed a musical form in this series that your church enjoys, please let me know.
At a glance
J. Bass and William Stinson’s recommended contemporary gospel artists
LOCAL: Sheldon Isaac and Walking by Faith, Herman Solomon and the Galveston Citywide Chorale
NATIONAL: Donald Lawrence, James Hall, Ricky Dillard, Tye Tribbett and Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Zacardi Cortez
Meet the new director of Galveston’s St. Vincent House.