These days, Lawrence Brownlee spends most of his time on the stages of the world's great opera houses. That's where you'll find him singing Rossini and Donizetti. His supple, strong, high-flying voice can negotiate the tightest hairpin turns with grace and elegance; that, and his ability to command the stage as an actor, has won Brownlee the praise of critics worldwide.
But as much as he excels at opera, there's a special place in Brownlee's heart for African-American spirituals. Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Brownlee sang gospel music in church, and now he's returning to that tradition by releasing a new album, Spiritual Sketches — and singing selections from it here in the NPR Music offices.
Brownlee bases much of his operatic success on his sturdy church-music grounding. "I would say that the flexibility I have with my voice is in large part because I sang gospel in church," Brownlee told NPR in 2007. "It's a lot of improvisational singing with a lot of riffs or runs."
The spirituals might be well-known, but through Brownlee's voice, they shine in new, occasionally jazz-inflected arrangements by Damien Sneed. "There Is a Balm in Gilead" floats in a newly contemplative mood with the addition of a few blue notes and chromatic touches, while the spunky piano line Justina Lee plays in "Come By Here" seems inspired by great stride players like James P. Johnson.
But the heart and soul of this concert is "All Night, All Day," a performance that swells with a potent combination of tenderness and operatic horsepower. The song speaks of a protective band of angels — angels that Brownlee told the audience are watching over his 3-year-old son Caleb, who's just been diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder.
"It's called 'All Night, All Day,' but I've renamed it 'Caleb's Song,'" Brownlee says. The soulful vocalisms with which Brownlee closes the song are gorgeous and tinged with anguish. Afterward, I heard one NPR staffer say it was the first time she'd ever wept at a Tiny Desk Concert. --TOM HUIZENGA
"There Is A Balm In Gilead"
"All Night, All Day"
"Come By Here"
Producers: Denise DeBelius, Tom Huizenga; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Parker Miles Blohm, Denise DeBelius, Gaby Demczuk