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Noise, funk from on high

by Jordan Green

The keyboards in the song start out spacey and wondrous, and the drummer counts off – “one, two, three” – before the female vocalist hymns the refrain – “All I want to do is stand for the Lord.” The drummer and the percussionist keep it in the pocket. The guitar player, kicking out some wah wah, closely watches the rhythm section.

The male vocalist drills into the feeling of the lyric: “You got to stand up/ He’ll give you what you need as long as you stand up.” His female counterpart dances, patting her leg and swinging her arms at her side. The percussionist does a light step-march behind a bank of congas, rototoms, timbales and chimes. The bass player grimaces, jutting his chin to the beat, and a grin spreads across his face. The drummer counts off again and the groove opens wide with the guitarist teasing out notes of psychedelic exploration.

Most of the padded metal-folding chairs sit empty within the confines of this brick storefront church across the street from the brutalist monstrosity that is the Guilford County Department of Health building on Greensboro’s East Wendover Avenue. Overhead fluorescent lights, plastic flowers and white curtains hanging over the back wall of the sanctuary brighten the scene inside.

The funk builds to a full boil and the musical chemistry between the players reaches a sublime refinement. The six men and one woman who comprise Free Expression Changed would have you know the phenomenon can only be explained as the Holy Spirit coming down over the place.

Jay McCoy, the keyboardist and pastor at Higher Grounds Ministries, cries out, “Stand for the Lord,” as the song comes to a close. Vocalist Wyndell Williams replies, “Fire in the church.” A shipping clerk built like a fire hydrant, Williams rubs his eyes and shouts with relief. Gail Simmons, an administrative assistant for a tax resolution firm wearing a pink sweater and a radiant smile, who shares vocal duties with Williams, also rubs her eyes.

The seven of them file out into the nave and distribute themselve in the metal folding chairs, and the intensity of the moment dispels in light-hearted camaraderie.

Simmons is a relatively new addition to the group.

“She’s one of the first females,” McCoy says, and he searches for the right word: “that we’ve been able….”

She finishes his sentence: “To hold on to. They’re like brothers and I’m like the younger sister. We really are like a family.”

The original core members – McCoy, Williams, guitarist Kevin Moragne and drummer Jerome Courts – converged as Free Expression in the early 1990s, and achieved some modest success as a secular soul-funk act with uplifting and innovative touches, building to a gig opening for the Temptations and the Four Tops at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh. Then, after Courts and a female vocalist departed and McCoy and Moragne struggled to keep the group financially solvent, the Free Expression fell apart.

There was a time of preparation, and a time in the wilderness. When the band got back together, the players believe they were each individually anointed, and the music took on a new life. Dubbed Free Expression Changed to reflect the members’ respective spiritual transformations, the re-formed group brought in its wake a new church, and McCoy, an employee of the US Postal Service, began regularly filling the metal folding chairs on Sunday mornings in May 2006.

“The Lord had been working on everybody’s life,” he says.

A pastor’s son, McCoy initially resisted the call to the ministry.

“I had taken on studying to be a minister,” he says. “Nobody knew this. None of these guys knew anyway.”

It was in 2004 or 2005 – memories are not precise.

Courts recalls, “The Lord said, ‘Look, I gave you this talent. What I really want you to do is do it for me.'”

He called Moragne, who is his cousin. Courts recalls, “I called my cousin. I said, ‘I changed my life. Let’s get a gospel group together.’ He said, ‘Wow, you know, I have too.”

Courts had a bass player in mind, and he looked up Perry Bennett.

“This brother here, I hadn’t seen him in awhile,” Courts says. “He said, ‘Look, I’ve been praying for this: a drummer.'”

Williams was having a barbecue at his house, and Courts and Bennett went over to ask him to sing.

Simmons joined around the spring of 2006. She had been working on a children’s show at Cable 8 Greensboro Community Television, and she turned to McCoy for help writing a musical theme.

“I really wasn’t trying to be bothered,” McCoy says.

Simmons persisted, and showed up at church.

“Courts came up and asked me what I was doing with my voice besides kids’ songs,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Not really anything.'”

Percussionist Prenister Rogers was the last to join Free Expression Changed, but he had actually played drums with the original group for the Walnut Creek show after Courts’ departure. It was a dream realized. Then the group disintegrated. Rogers ran into McCoy last summer. The pastor was in a rush, but he urged Rogers to come see him.

“I was walking to the Texaco station to Western Union to get some money from my brother,” Rogers says. “I was struggling. Had to call home for help.”

He laughs and his voice fills with gratitude.

“If I hadn’t walked into this, I would be on Channel 11,” Rogers says.

McCoy clarifies, “He would be on death row.”

Rogers continues: “I was just so full of the spirit when I started playing with this group. If I got to be the water boy, pull me in. It changed my life.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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