Britt has left his fingerprints on globetrotting collaborations with Beyonce (and her little sister Solange), Nigerian polyrhythms and underwater-inspired house music. In 2005, he combined his beats and Morgan's recordings on King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan (Ropeadope).
Britt brings those songs to life with a full band at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) Friday and Saturday. He also will discuss recording the album and screen a short film, Searching for ... Sister Gertrude Morgan.
In 2005, Ropeadope founder Andy Hurwitz convinced Britt to remix (or, as Britt says, "enhance") Morgan's music after he bought Britt a book of her visually arresting folk art.
"I was really blown away, at first that I didn't know who she was," Britt says. "Then to find out she was more than just a painter — she was really more of an evangelist, and a prophet. When I heard the original recordings, I was like, 'I'm in.'"
He and guitarist/collaborator Tim Motzer improvised during early recording sessions. Britt played Morgan's original recordings, in which the only instruments are a tambourine and her vocals, and the band added rich, dense layers of guitars, keyboards and acoustic instruments. "We put in her vocal — once we got it in time to a metronome — (and) put it up in the studio and we jammed with her, as if she was there."
Behind every track is Morgan's tambourine — "one of the most important instruments" on the album, Britt says. "It really keeps it in the context of the original. ... We couldn't take it out, so we had to work around that, but it was a blessing. If we would've taken it out, it would've gone in a totally different direction, sonically and rhythmically."
Morgan was born in Alabama and later lived in Georgia before committing to her life as the "Bride of Christ" in New Orleans — she painted, assisted orphanages and cut an album's worth of her percussive preaching and improvised gospel singing, assisted only by a tambourine. In the mid-1970s, she abandoned singing and painting, and she died in 1980. After rediscovering the recording, Preservation Hall released a remastered version of Morgan's Let's Make a Record in 2004, revealing her blues- and gospel-inflected singing in an intense, intimate performance.
Britt ensured Morgan remained the star of King Britt Presents, but his globally-informed musical palate also shines. There's the deliberate, sweaty funk on "Take the Lord Along With U," and the blues of "I Am the Living Bread," in which Morgan's circular singing meets layers of guitars and a focused beat, sending the song into swirling, psychedelic praise. On "New World in My View," a building orchestra assists Morgan as she drifts from chants and singing to sermons: "You going to be cursed, for turning the word down," she sings to Britt's programmed applause.
On "Power," Let's Make a Record's closer, Britt's thumping, African rhythms and slide guitars trail away as Morgan spits her sermon.
"When we played it last night, when we were rehearsing, I was like, 'Damn, we really killed it,'" Britt says. "Or she really killed it. We just enhanced it."