Shirley Caesar is one of the great black singers of our time, but many people have never been exposed to "the bundle of dynamite's" sheer energy because she has steadfastly worked in the gospel idiom. Her gut-level power and relentless vocal invention have been compared to Aretha Franklin and Mavia Staples, both of whom reached wider audiences after crossing the secular bridge.
On her new album, "Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name," Caesar flits between smooth, pop production and traditional gospel leanness, a balancing act that's long been part of her appeal. On "I'll Keep My Light in the Window," a charging, tight horn section pumps along behind her as the soul laxicon meets the gospel chorus.
Spooner Oldham's "He's Only a Prayer Away" has a country steadliness, while Harlan Howard's "No Charge," a country hit 10 years ago for Melba Montgomery, is a factory-made weeper redeemed by Caesar's half-spoken but wholly impassioned delivery of the credits and debits that build up in family life.
There's a tough, urban edge to Willie Hutch's "Mark of the Beast" and "Guilty as Judes," but Caesar also treads familiar sacred waters on "I Won't Let Go," "I Don't Want to Stay Here" and the title song, all of which are delivered in a more familiar, chorus-enhanced setting.
Throughout, her singing is superb, riding freely over thumping bass lines and earthy choruses alike. Caesar can twist, compress or enhance a lyric a dozen ways without abandoning her central message of affirmation, strength and enduring faith. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM SHIRLEY CAESAR -- Jesus I Love Calling Your Name (Myrrh 6712). THE CONCERT SHIRLEY CAESAR & THE CAESAR SINGERS, Myrna Summers Shirley Ables & The Joy Singers and Spirit of Peace, Sunday at 8 at Constitution Hall.