DonnieDuetsDonnie McClurkin's Duets doesn't give you half a serving of McClurkin – it gives you Donnie, plus!

Donnie McClurkin
RCA Inspiration
10 tracks / 62:56

The title threw me a little. It's been too long between Donny McClurkin projects and, to be truthful – I didn't want to hear this great singer sharing vocal harmonies with other, lesser vocalists. Well, I shouldn't have been worried – this album is less about duets and more about collaborating with guest artists, and the combinations are explosive, for the most part.

McClurkin and his guests rarely harmonize on the same vocal lines but instead engage in interplay and vocal trade-offs. From the more contemporary romping of Tye Tribbett to separate outings with each member of Mary Mary (with "I Am Amazed" sounding very much in a Hawkins Family mode) McClurkin shows why he's one of the most versatile and flexible of today's gospel singers, well able to go from angelic tenor phrases to Holy Ghost scatting (if I can use such a term) on the same project.

On the mostly self-produced Duets McClurkin does more churchin' than on previous albums, especially on the three live tracks featuring collaborations with the legendary Tramaine Hawkins ("My Past") and the astounding Dorinda Clark Cole ("Write My Name" and "Let It Go"). Hawkins' passion and elegance is set between the two fiery gospel tracks featuring McClurkin's vocal interplay with Dorinda Clark Cole, whose vocal improvisation is so impressive that she and Donny manage to take the single phrase "Oh, you've got to let it go," and make it interesting for the better part of seven minutes.

The musicianship shines on Duets, with smooth strings and hot horn charts. The more traditional gospel numbers feature a tight rhythm section. The interplay of Hammond organ and drums near the end of "Let it Go" works perfectly with McClurkin and Clark-Cole's vocal gymnastics.

Justin Savage brings in a more sophisticated ballad sound with "Encouraged," while Israel Houghton and Marvin Sapp team up with McClurkin on the impressive "Come As You Are."

The album closes with the light, jazzy, "All About the Love," one of the many fine songs written by Donnie McClurkin for this versatile collection. Duets is one of the most vital, exciting gospel albums of the year so far, avoiding the pitfalls of many recent albums in the genre that sound too polished and lifeless. In the end, with contributions by the likes of John P. Kee, Houghton, Tribbett and the others, it's still Donnie McClurkin's touch that makes the album special – and you won't feel like you got half a serving of Donnie – you got Donnie, plus.

-Bert Saraco