Sarah Brown Sings Mahalia Jackson – Album Review
By Ellie Victor
Mahalia Jackson, “Queen of Gospel”, casts a long shadow over the genre she helped popularise. Across four decades her indomitable vocal prowess and emotive interpretations of gospel standards elevated her to iconic status. Her songs are not just spiritual hymns, but anthems of cultural and social significance. So, for Sarah Brown to take on the task of interpreting Jackson’s classics is to step into sacred territory—a challenge that requires not just technical skill but a deep emotional and spiritual resonance.
Known primarily as a backing vocalist for Stevie Wonder, George Michael, and most recently, Simple Minds, Brown has identified Jackson as a significant influence and from the opening chords of ‘Nobody Knows’ it’s clear that Brown’s years in the industry have been leading up to this moment. The track begins quietly, before soaring, announcing her arrival as a solo artist with gospel authenticity and flair. What follows is a riveting collection of gospel classics and soulful renditions that would make even the harshest critic a believer.
The ensemble playing is striking. Brown backed by a group of musicians who clearly understand the fine art of gospel—the cool brush drums, double-bass, swinging piano, and on-point organ makes ‘Summertime’ and ‘Didn’t It Rain’ captivating. Colin Good’s piano work is a sublime accompaniment throughout, alongside fine contributions by Tom Wheatley and Luke Smith.
Standout tracks include ‘Trouble of the World’, a song that offers no comforting illusions but confronts darkness head-on, and an emotionally stirring ‘Amazing Grace’, the perennial hymn that Brown manages to make her own. In each song, Brown channels the spirit of Jackson while adding her own unique, personal flair. It makes the album more than just a tribute—it’s a joyous and empowering celebration of a gospel great.
In taking on this formidable catalogue, Brown has achieved the remarkable feat of breathing new life into Mahalia Jackson’s songs. There are modern twists that introduce them to a new generation while capturing the essence of what makes the songs timeless and spiritually uplifting.
Sarah Brown Sings Mahalia Jackson not only pays homage to a musical giant but contributes to the rich tapestry of gospel music itself. In adding to Mahalia Jackson’s enduring legacy, Sarah Brown has started to weave her own.
Sarah Brown’s Winter Blues show is at Union Chapel, 6th November: unionchapel.org.uk