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.
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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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cristo Redentor statue in fog by “the persistence of the memory” https://www.flickr.com/photos/persistence/
Sky by Nick Dunlop https://unsplash.com/@ngdunlap
Duke Pearson portrait courtesy of Blue Note Records