Brilliant Songs #42: Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redentor”

If I’m drawn to a piece of music, it usually begins to spin its magic on me in the first few notes. Doesn’t matter the genre or era, and doesn’t always require that I be listening closely at the time.

Maybe the radio or Spotify will be on low volume and I’ll barely hear a melodic snippet or phrase or emotional lilt and the next thing out of my mouth to whomever is close to the dial is, “Can you please turn that up?”

And so it was a few weeks ago when somewhere—so many inputs, such cluttered memory—the late trumpeter Donald Byrd’s name appeared on an exotically named tune called “Cristo Redentor.” Byrd’s was the first recording of the song in 1963, and it still reigns as the definitive version. It was written, however, by his pal and collaborator, the composer and pianist Duke Pearson. And as you’ll see and hear evidence of below, the song does right by a wide variety of practitioners.

…a song that transports listeners as few others do to a place of deep contemplation, a kind of dogma-free religious experience, the cares of the world not denied but absorbed into a profound sense of stillness, acceptance, and peace.

Instead of the unmistakable sound rendered by brass, reeds, pursed lips and fingers, Byrd’s rendition begins with a small chorus holding forth in a kind of medieval chant (“Ooh-ooh-ooooohhh”), punctuated at intervals by light percussion from a guitar, vibraphone and drums.

The effect—languid, solemn, hypnotic, deeply “spiritual”—got my immediate attention as I wondered how the noted jazzman Byrd was going to enter into the mix.

At just under two of the five-plus minutes the piece plays, he does, both snapping us out of our hypnotic trance and inducing a new one as his trumpet breaks into the main melodic theme.

There, it marries up with the gospel choir directed by the classically trained composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.

Throw in some dazzling piano riffs under the melody line by a young Herbie Hancock (still touring and teaching today at age 83), and what emerges is a song that transports listeners as few others do to a place of deep contemplation, a kind of dogma-free religious experience, the cares of the world not denied but absorbed into a profound sense of stillness, acceptance, and peace.



We’ll listen to Byrd’s groundbreaking version below and then Pearson’s own piano version that incorporates the same vocal track. And then a couple of other (bonus!) covers among the countless variations musicians in multiple genres have produced over the years.

The song lends itself beautifully and equally well to gospel, blues, jazz, classical and the various mashups that make music an ever-evolving, constantly refreshed conduit to all that is best about the human longing for beauty and creativity.

“Cristo Redentor” translates literally from the Portuguese as “Christ Redeemer.” If you’ve ever been to Rio de Janeiro, you will likely know the towering art deco statue of Jesus (98 feet high, standing on a 26-foot pedestal) that greets airline passengers coming into the city. After landing, they are enveloped in his outstretched arms (92 feet wide), the whole of it a striking presence perched on Mt. Corcovado, 2,300 feet above the city.

Duke Pearson

The story goes that Pearson was on tour with the singer Nancy Wilson in 1961 when he espied the statue as their plane entered the air space over Rio. Immediately inspired, he grabbed a pen and produced a draft of his tribute before the plane met the ground. He later shared it with Byrd, son of a Methodist minister, who made a gold record out of it for both of them.

Pearson, just 29 at the time, went on to compose and play numerous other works before dying at age 47 from multiple sclerosis. He was a deeply spiritual man who said at the sighting of the statue and his feverishly written composition, “I’d never felt that close to religion before.”

Let’s give a listen to Byrd’s and his versions before introducing a couple of additional tracks and calling it a day.



Pearson’s piano version, same vocal intro but a minute shorter than Byrd’s extended riffing…


For all of Byrd’s and Pearson’s vaunted instrumental chops, we hear immediately that the vocal element stands more than adequately by itself. Proof positive, in its purest, stripped down sense, is below with a haunting solo by the soprano Renee Titus, a two-minute hymn to the eternal, accompanied from first note to last only by piano. Titus’s vibrato punctures the very heavens at 1:27, inviting them down to commingle on earth with the majesty of the human voice.



Finally, just to underscore how inexhaustible is the variety of musical expression, we turn to renowned blues harmonica king Charlie Musselwhite, who bleeds every possible ounce of soulfulness and languor out of Pearson’s tune in this live version from maybe 15 years ago.

He’s joined at the 6:00 mark by his guitarist Andrew Jones, quite the bluesman in his own right, who helps Musselwhite bring it home in a way that could only bring a thankful smile to the face of Cristo up there in the hills of Rio, pleased with this momentary break in the travails of the world, his music-making bros below going about their work, diligent and devoted as ever.



The intros and links to all previous songs in this series are available here.

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Cristo Redentor statue in fog by “the persistence of the memory”

Sky by Nick Dunlop

Duke Pearson portrait courtesy of Blue Note Records

5 comments to Brilliant Songs #42: Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redentor”

  • Barbara Leahy  says:

    Oh thank you Andrew. Having never heard this piece before, I was totally into each version you presented, and didn’t think it could get any better, then you gave us Charlie Musselwhite’s great take. Again, thank you for introducing us to such a beautiful piece of music.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks so much, Barbara. I never did reach the end of the You Tube scroll on other versions of this song, and I’d been at it off and on for the better part of several weeks, and I swear I didn’t come across one version that left me with, “Meh…” That said, Musselwhite’s was the very last one I encountered before tying this baby up, and I knew that even at 10 minutes long, it would have been an injustice for all parties to have left it off. Glad you enjoyed it and the others, too. Happy holidays to you & yours!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    “Cristo Redentor” is a perfectly brilliant song for a quiet Sunday morning. Duke Pearson’s genius in this composition is his ability to meld a gospel chorus into trumpet (Donald Byrd) and piano (Herbie Hancock) soloes, maintaining that soulful, slow tempo mood throughout. I’ve always appreciated how effective jazz is in its ability to integrate one genre into another. Duke Ellington, whom I was lucky enough to see in concert a year prior to his death, composed “Sugar Rum Cherry” as a tribute of sorts to Tchaikovsky’s “Sugar Plum Fairy”. When I was at UCLA, many eons ago, Herbie Hancock performed at Royce Hall. I recall him saying how much he owed to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Both expanded his primarily classical-jazz focus into a broader range of musical genres. For instance, he was surprised by how much saxophonist John Coltrane loved Hank Williams’ country songs. On a more personal level, he mentioned how much trumpeter Miles Davis recommended that he give other kinds of music a real going over. Actually, as I recall, he said “demanded”. I guess Miles wasn’t easy to jam with. Incidentally, when I hear Donald Byrd’s trumpeting, there’s a bit of an echo of Miles to it (give Miles’ “It Never Entered My Mind” a listen). Drew, I thoroughly enjoy your “Brilliant Song” blogs because they introduce me to new music or bring back old ones which I hadn’t listened for years like “Cristo Redentor”. Thanks.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, I came across a fun You Tube comment of someone who got into a conversation with Pearson after a concert, and the guy told him Musselwhite had just come out with a version of “Cristo.” Said Pearson was incredulous, “He kept asking, ‘Charlie Musselwhite, the blues guy? Charlie Musselwhite, the harmonica player?'” But that’s how these things always go, the cross-fertilization in music arguably the most profound of all the arts (though that might make for a good argument to take up pro & con in a future post!). One more tidbit: Pearson’s given name was Columbus Calvin Pearson but his uncle was a big admirer of Duke Ellington and just started calling him that and it stuck, the rest being part of musical history…

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Love it!! As a die-hard music fan I always enjoy this feature of your blog, and almost always learn something as well as get introduced to wonderful songs/artists! I bought
    Charlie Musselwhite’s first album Stand Back, my Jr. year in college (1968) and loved this moody and delicate song with the weird title, Cristo Redentor! Being primarily a rock n roll, R & B. blues fan I also bumped into Harvel Mandel’s version but never took the time to explore the jazz roots of this lovely and most evocative song – thanks for once again expanding my musical appreciations! On a side note, as you know I live in Healdsburg, Sonoma County CA and Charlie Musselwhite lives 8 miles north of here in Geyserville, he’ll be 80 this Jan and still going strong! Last time I saw him, a year or so ago, I was stunned at how strong and robust his harp playing remains, this bluesman still brings it!

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