The concert of contemporary gospel music presented by Steve Key & Co. was to have been a recreational outing with no journalistic strings attached. But about 20 seconds into the group's opening number, a spirited, up-tempo "This Is the Day," I was already marveling at its expertly crafted harmonies, unanimous phrasing and sassy delivery.
By concert's end, it was clear that the excellence of this ensemble should not go unacknowledged.
The sextet of singers backed by a pair of electronic keyboard players, a bass guitarist and a drummer performed Sunday at St. Philip's Church in Annapolis under the aegis of the church's Performing Arts Ministry, which provides entertaining and spiritually uplifting forays into the fine arts for the community.
Key, a Washington native, is a man of diverse musical talents who excels at composition, musical direction and keyboard performance. He's also a remarkably flexible singer who can shift from a stratospheric falsetto to a mellow baritone timbre with nary a bump in the melodic line.
A former member of the D.C. Youth Orchestra, Key was music director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Gospel Choir. On the national gospel front, he has worked with such luminaries as Edwin Hawkins, Richard Smallwood and Yolanda Adams. Key is founder and president of Step Key Music.
His prodigious success is not surprising, for what's unmistakable is the sense of serious artistic purpose he fuses into his arrangements and into the artistry he coaxes from his singers. As I listened, three things stood out.
The first is the diversity of the music and the effortless elan with which the group moves from one gospel idiom to another. Take the final three numbers from Sunday's first set: The group moved from a slow, introspective, balladlike affair full of lush harmonies, to a traditional spiritual with dark harmonic austerity and ended with a joyous, jauntily syncopated number. Second, and equally striking, was the diversity of vocal styles.
Delmarie Hines launches her solos with old-time fervor and power. Tenor Wayne Jenkins' stylish delivery could be transferred to the easy-listening pop idiom at the drop of a hat, and Jacqueline Portis-Joyner's bright, perky voice would be great for the musical stage. Phyllis Parker, the native Annapolitan of the group, is a lyric soprano equally at home in Steve Key's arrangement of "Glory and Honor" and Mozart's celestial "Laudate Dominum."
Finally, in the manner of the finest chamber ensembles, these voices and musical personalities blend into an evocative whole that many aspire to but few attain. In gospel teamwork and esprit de corps are of the essence.