Album Review: Joy Guidry – Amen

[Whited Sepulchre; 2024]

Psalm 138:7

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life.
You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes;
with your right hand you save me.

AMEN opens with hope, an outstretched hand in times of trouble to help bear great hardship. The album’s first track, “Psalm 138:7”, is a stilling moment of calm, bassoon mingling with the calming hum of the surrounding ambience, like stars mirroring on a peaceful body of water. Joy Guidry knows the importance of reflection, moments of peace and pause amid the most trying and challenging times. It’s instances like this that feel like Guidry is both making space and time for listeners and herself to sit with and meditate. The titular Radical Acceptance from her 2022 album led to practicing a radical self-love, following through with the scathing and wry manifesto that opened said album.

From this, happiness emerged. “I’m so happy where I am in life,” the California-based bassoonist, composer, and producer states. Guidry recognises that this doesn’t just come from within her but also from surrounding friends, family, and community. That’s where AMEN takes its inspiration and where it offers an outstretched hand of its own. “I wanted to give a voice and give power and provide community to the people I love and truly care for on this record,” Guidry explains of the album’s origins. This is a record that invites other voices in so as to create a whole; AMEN is a record made from the many.

And that “many” comes from both the past and the present. An ensemble of voices – Jillian Grace, Ekep Nkwelle, Jay St. Flo, Niecy Blues, Keiyaa, and Alexvndria – bring to life odes to the history of music Guidry grew up with. Drawing from the Texas, Louisiana, and Creole roots of her youth, she forms gospel, jazz, and blues into new modern forms through channels of influence that stem back decades first and then further back still.

“Members Don’t Get Weary”, for example, is a tribute to the drummer Max Roach (whose centennial birthday the track celebrates). A journey through traditional spiritual standards and “blues-based rhapsodic incantations” (as doctorate student Brian Edward Jones put it): the drums and brass pummel, conflate, and contract, taking the trance-like quality of Roach’s original and somehow injecting it with even more urgency. 

Jones’ masters thesis on Max Roach, Treme, and the Sound of Resistance highlights the cultural significance of the original track. “Awash with biblical imagery, the implication of this tune’s meaning is the continued need to rail against the oppressive power structure in the United States.” Decades on, Guidry – armed with a small choir of voices and a tight ensemble of jazz musicians – recognises that the fight still carries on, from the church to the studio to the street. It’s as clear as day on the sample of Pastor E. Dewey Smith fervently speaking on “Pick And Choose” and carries forward onto “Angels” too, an updated take on a call and response arrangement originally created by Cynthia Liggins Thomas. As the voices rise a tone with each iteration of the central mantra, a vigoured immediacy emerges. “Everywhere I go / There’s an angel there / Cause my God, he never leaves me alone,” the voices sing, both the worry of a looming spectre and also a helpful haloed being lingering in the words. (As an aside, the track highlights the influence gospel music evidently had on Dave Malloy when they wrote and composed the musical Ghost Quartet; fans of the production will enjoy “Angels” for this fact alone.)

If all this sounds heavy and loaded, then it absolutely is. This is music imbued with history, and to not reckon with it doesn’t give AMEN its due. But Guidry gives plenty of opportunity for reflection and pause: both “Angels” and “Members Don’t Get Weary” are surrounded by smaller numbers of wistful ambience. The synths on “I Will Always MIss You” sound peaceful and hymnal while Guidry plays her bassoon like a violin, conjuring an impossible softness; “Day By Day” is delicate and dreamy, sprinkles of piano and soft electronics (from Diego Gaeta and Scott li respectively) decorating the landscape; and “It’s Okay To Let Me Go” is a woozy synth excursion that has a playfulness about it.

The downside to AMEN then is that it’s too short. It mines deep territory, but after the heights of “Angels” it aches for more excavation and exploration thereafter. Instead we soon find ourselves dipping into the pool of watery ambience that is final track “Revelations 7:16-17”, which has distant echoes of the voices from “Angels” swirling over careful piano chords. After a luxurious and velvety crescendo, the album is done.

AMEN is just part of the story though, one that Guidry is writing with each release. As much as it leaves a wanting for more, it is just part of the process of change in her music, itself a constantly evolving creature. It’s the hand stretching out, continuously so, to help be that olive branch for those needing uplifting or a tranquil place of peace. This is music to help document hardships overcome, pay tribute to heritage, and to show the power of community. With its many voices, Guidry shows us her happiness. Amen to that.