In the dynamic world of praise and worship, the music never stops as believers seek new songs to express their hearts to God. No one knows this better than gospel-praise powerhouse Israel & New Breed and its bandleader, Israel Houghton, who for more than a decade have been resourcing the Church with such classics as "Friend of God," "You Are Good," "Again I Say Rejoice" and "Alpha and Omega."
Why, then, did the group go on hiatus, waiting five years before recording Jesus at the Center, since the release of their 2007 GRAMMY®-winning album A Deeper Level?
Truth is, the band didn't go anywhere. If anything, Houghton says they've been as busy as ever: "We did around 700 concerts in that amount of time. And we're still hopping."
Hiatus? Not even close.
Houghton points out that in the interim he also recorded two solo albums, The Power of One and Love God/ Love People, Grammy-winning studio albums that allowed him to stretch creatively, trying things that perhaps would sound differently if replicated in a live setting. But whenever a ministry opportunity arose, Houghton says the New Breed gang was ready to hit the road—whether it was touring with Chris Tomlin, performing at the GRAMMYs®, or leading worship around the world. Still hopping, indeed.
And it was their experiences during these past five years that inspired Jesus At The Center, music for a new season with a message that has been resonating with the group for a while.
"It felt like the right time and the right statement to make," Houghton says of the album title. "The simplicity of being all about Jesus, and not using 'pronoun-ed' gospel… going back to a place where it's not about us, where we're decreasing because Jesus is increasing and drawing all men to him."
"This requires finding the balance between being a worship leader and being an artist," he continues. "The purpose of a worship leader is being looked through, not looked at."
Words that Israel & New Breed put to good use on Jesus at the Center, co-produced with his friend and collaborator Aaron Lindsey and recorded before a live audience at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, where Houghton is a longtime worship leader. But don't call this a homecoming.
"It felt more like a home-court advantage than a homecoming," says Houghton, who had recorded at Lakewood before with the likes of Michael W. Smith, Martha Munizzi and the church itself, but never for one of his own albums. "There were a lot of these songs that were in the house so to speak, so it made it easy for the crowd to worship along."
And worship along they do. Houghton says that about 70 percent of Jesus at the Center had been tried and tested at Lakewood before making it onto the recording, which is palpable in the way the audience responds to the music, beginning with the album's centerpiece, the worship ballad "Jesus at the Center," originally introduced in the Israel & New Breed anthology, Decade.
The title track marks a midpoint between Center's two halves—a first disc comprised mostly of explosive congregational songs, and a second one that takes the listener through a seamless worship experience, one reminiscent of some of the best moments from 2004's Live from Another Level. The songs are simply gigantic, with a polish that's befitting for the venue, one of America's foremost multimedia churches both in the realms of sight and sound.
The first disc kicks things into high gear with an avalanche of corporate praise like only Israel & New Breed can unfurl—which means there's plenty of funk, horns, rhythm, vocal dynamics, and call-and-response interplay between the band and worshippers in attendance. Opener "Jesus the Same" is classic for the group, a funk fest replete with '70s synthesizers and an Earth, Wind & Fire vibe, yet congregational and Christ-centered to the core.
Israel & New Breed know this is the part of the recording where they let loose and help the audience drop its guard, so the troupe keeps the praise going with "Rez Power," "No Turning Back," and "More Than Enough," a one-two-three punch that borrows elements from contemporary gospel, choral praise, rock and even ska, a sonic fusion that Houghton has characterized as a "Kingdom" sound. The big surprise in this stretch of Center is the danceable "Te Amo" (Spanish for "I love you"), a Latin-pop stunner that turns Lakewood into the biggest block party in Houston.
The pace slows down in the middle with "I Call You Jesus" and "Worship Medley," culminating with the album's cornerstone, "Jesus at the Center." The worship flows uninterrupted from there through such tracks as the driving, Daniel Johnson-led "Speechless," the New Breed encourager "It's Not Over (When God Is in It)," and "Your Presence Is Heaven," another congregational piece that Houghton hopes makes its way to Sunday-morning playlists.
Always stretching musical boundaries, Houghton invites on stage "Friend of God" co-writer Michael Gungor for one of Center's most stand-out moments—a medley of Gungor's bluegrass-tinged "You Have Me" and Houghton's "You Hold My World," a combination that only makes sense on an Israel & New Breed recording. As the second disc draws to a close, Houghton's daughter Mariah shares a special moment with her father in a tender cover of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love."
As a bonus for listeners, studio versions of three high points from Jesus at the Center are included at the end of the second disc: the title track, "Your Presence Is Heaven," and "It's Not Over (When God Is in It)," the latter of which features guests spots from James Fortune and Jason Nelson. And for an even more experiential enjoyment of Jesus at the Center, all of the album's performances will also be included in a companion DVD to be released in conjunction with the project.
"I hope that people would hear the authenticity of the whole experience and know that whether they are believers or not, they can sense a conviction around what we do," says Houghton. "Sometimes we can be so 'churched' that we can lose sight of the 'who, what, why' of worship. This project simply places Jesus where he is supposed to be."