Reviewed by Johan Palme on 22nd December, 2015
Sometimes, it’s not about the notes someone sings, about their purity and quality and intrinsic meaningfulness. Sometimes, it’s about the pauses. In visual arts, this is something that’s deeply understood and studied, whether in gestalt psychology, in theories of white space or in Japanese understandings of the concept of Ma, as an integrap part which gives the whole composition a different, heightened meaning. But in music, pauses are much less studied and much more underrated, even though they can be just as meaningful.
Mahalia Jackson was the total master of pauses. Oh certainly, her voice was exceptional when she used her vocal chords, too, incredibly powerful and steadfast, equally informed by the history of gospel and that of the jazz vocal. But it’s her utter control of the moment between notes, of the timing of release, that really makes this record. Accompanied for the most part by just an organ or piano (with some superfluous Columbia choral overdubs, that thankfully mostly just decorate the beginnings of songs), there’s very often no steady rhythm. Instead, she holds… out… those pauses, filling them with incredible tension that has the listener just waiting to be released. When notes finally come they become all the more impactful because of how enraptured us listeners have become, pulled into those perfect pauses and thrown out onto Mahalia Jackson’s wonderful timbre.
Mahalia Jackson made four or five separate Christmas albums and had a lot of different types of releases, but Silent Night is by far the best. Neither too simple nor to commercialised, it’s caught the singer at her absolute career peak, full of powerful confidence and utter conviction. Because all the drama, all the tension, is only possible through Mahalia Jackson’s absolute and true belief. And it’s damned hard not to be pulled along with her.