Mahalia Jackson rewrote the rules for singing gospel in the late '40s by bringing blues phrasing and other secular elements into sacred song, and with her powerful alto, she sang with an immediacy and conviction that are still startling when they break out of the speakers some 30 years after her death. This two-disc set collects tracks from Jackson's long stay at Columbia Records, as well as a few tracks from her previous label, Apollo Records, where she recorded from 1947 until signing with Columbia in 1954. What makes this set feel like more than a greatest-hits collection is the inspired sequencing, which doesn't move chronologically but instead is paced like a concert, helped by the placement of key live tracks, including several from her historic appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Highlights are almost too many to mention, but her elegant version of "Come Sunday" with Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
is majestic in scope, and her interpretations of a pair of Thomas A. Dorsey
compositions, "It Didn't Cost Very Much" and "I'm Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song" are definitive. The funky "Let the Church Roll On," featuring some wonderful stop-start stuttering piano work from Mildred Falls
, rocks the house, as does the rousing, jazzy version of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" that is included here. A beautiful and heartbreaking reading of "I've Been Buked" from Columbia's tape archives is another obvious high point. No one could worry over a note like Mahalia Jackson. The Essential Mahalia Jackson
makes a marvelous introduction to the Colombia Records era of this powerful and soulful singer, and coupled with the earlier three-disc Apollo Sessions
, paints a complete picture of an American treasure.