Preview: PJ Morton@Cuba Libre, July 15

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[It was just announced that the PJ Morton gig at Cuba Libre has been cancelled, along with all of his tour dates for the year. Apparently he signed on to play keyboards and sing backup on Maroon 5’s new tour.]

For God and Glory

PJ Morton’s performance at Cuba Libre on Thursday, July 15, may be the most highly-anticipated concert of religious music held on the First Coast this year. He came through earlier, on January 21, to preview the new album and his return engagement here; due to relentless demand, that show was re-scheduled from May.

Morton’s commitment to his craft is reflected in the speed with which his work found an audience. He’s already won a Grammy, a Dove Award and a Stellar Award for “Song of the Year” within the surprisingly diverse and compelling world of religious music, a world in which he quickly became an established star. His newest album, Walk Alone, was released April 6 on his own S.O.S. (“Song of Solomon”) Music. It is actually Morton’s fifth studio release, and his second self-run record label. His debut disc, Emotions, was released in 2005, followed by Live From LA in 2008–both products of his original label, 2 PM Music.

Morton, 27, currently lives in Atlanta, but his musical roots are set in another southern hotspot, New Orleans, arguably the birthplace of black music in America. His story mirrors, in some ways, his musical idol, the great Stevie Wonder. Morton’s life was defined by music from day one, immersed in the powerful sounds of homegrown gospel. He picked up piano at eight and was writing his own material by age 14. By the time he graduated from Historically Black Morehouse College, Morton had already won his Grammy for writing the India.Arie song “Interested”. He’s gone on to collaborate with music heavyweights like Erykah Badu and LL Cool J.

Last year Morton, himself the middle child of Atlanta Bishop Paul S. Morton, published his first book, Why Can’t I Sing About Love?: The Truth About the “Church” Against “Secular” Music. Published out of Atlanta by Namesake Publishing the book is short (just 51 pages) and small (4”x6”), but powerful, and well worth the time to read. The text is part-treatise, part-memoir, dealing with the timeless conflict facing those musicians seeking to reconcile pop success with the sometimes oppressive moral standards of their church backgrounds.

This has been an issue since the earliest days of black music in America; Marvin Gaye, whose socially and sensually provocative music made him a legend before he was murdered by his preacher father on April Fools Day 1984, is probably the most famous example of this dynamic at work. But it’s been a significant factor, in a less extreme level, in the lives of many, many music masters. Most often it manifests as a more or less seamless transition from religious to secular music—say, Whitney Houston—or as heavy issues that materialize at the wrong times—say, Whitney Houston.

The distance between light and dark can be very far, or split-second close. Morton’s position is that God endows the artist with creative powers to use as they feel obliged to do, and that much of that the church consigned to the “secular” realm is, in fact, an expression of the spirit. Artists like Morton, who work in religious music while maintaining secular affinities, are like their many secular counterparts whose grounding in the church gave them the technical and professional background needed to thrive in the music business. They are bridging the gap in perception among a generation of listeners trained to perceive Gospel as “corny”, as they once perceived jazz. In so doing, they are reawakening people’s connection to their own history, reintroducing them to God, and throwing open the door to greater potentialities.

“In a world too often filled with lurid sexual lyrics written by people whose emphasis only embraces the physical.  PJ Morton has substituted the far more fulfilling spiritual emphasis on love lyrics, much like the Song of Solomon,” says Bishop TD Jakes. “The closer we get to real love in our home, the more we understand the God that gives us someone to love.” The back cover features quotes from Jakes, Kirk Franklin and the Rev. Al Green, who certainly knows a thing or two about these issues.

As one would expect of any modern musician, Morton maintains an online presence via MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Dusty Groove and CD Baby, in addition to his personal website. Recently, he formed a partnership with Jermaine Dupri, an Atlanta institution whose string of hits began with the infamous Kris Kross. In addition, the Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) tapped Morton to contribute vocals to a recent Hollywood production, the Vince Vaughn comedy “Couples Retreat”. With these and so many other irons in the fire, odds are that PJ Morton will continue running hot for many years to come.

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 10, 2010

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