LIKE THE BEST gospel groups, the Richard Smallwood Singers is a repertory ensemble blessed with an abundance of soul-stirring voices. Smallwood generously showcases all that vocal talent on "Portrait," an album that combines heavenly themes with some decidedly earthy grooves.

Of course Smallwood himself is no slouch when it comes to pulling an audience to its feet with a passionate vocal. His version Of "He's Able" could be an R&B smash if it had a more secular theme, and his duet with the explosive Darlene Simmons on "Who Will Go" is even more compelling.

Perhaps Smallwood's greatest gift, though, is his knack for consistently tapping the rich resources of his ensemble, making albums like this one shine with a series of unquestionably heartfelt lead vocals and rousing harmonies. Though the arrangements are colorfully varied, singers Jackie Ruffin, Rickie LaFontaine, Dottie Jones and Carolene Evans all rise to the occasion, and both the music and message get an additional boost from Washington's Metropolitan Young Adult Fellowship Ensemble.

If "Portrait" has a drawback it's merely that recordings -- even recordings as good as this one -- can't fully do justice to the foot-stomping joy, passion and devotion Smallwood and his ensemble invariably generate on stage.


"Portrait" (Word A&M). Appearing Friday at GWU's Lisner Auditorium.