Tuesday, April 20, 2010

“O Triune God” - Of Jazz and the Sacred

I love jazz because it is so cool, in the purest sense of that word. Uniquely American, jazz is our indigenous music, the progeny of an African-American musical experience that eschewed traditional, classical and popular forms. With jazz, notes are syncopated and bent in a bluesy way, harmonization is freed from the confines of Top 40 pop, the rhythm swings, and melodies take off via creative improvisation that renders the original idea almost unrecognizable. What emerges is an art form that literally liberates the musician and the listener to embrace a much larger musical universe.

To the untrained ear, jazz might seem like a cacophony. What have they done to that melody? This surely can’t be the song they started playing. I think about what Miles Davis did with “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” that innocuous and iconic song from Snow White, the Walt Disney cartoon. The original melody is there in the beginning, played in the oh-so-mellow way that only Miles can do. But then he and his band launch into variations that seem to take the fairy tale song into directions that neither Disney nor the Brothers Grimm ever dreamed possible.

Jazz. You either love it or you don’t get it. That has always been the appeal of jazz for me. I grew up a rock musician with some classical training, which is not as contradictory as it sounds. As a child of the 1960s, I was formed by the music of the Beatles, the Doors, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and other rock groups that seemed to revel in the rebellious abandon of the Boomer generation. This in-your-face brashness was tempered for me by my involvement in sacred music, particularly the traditional music of the Catholic Church: Gregorian chant, polyphony and hymnody.

As a teenager I was especially taken with the groundbreaking 1968 album Switched-On Bach, in which Wendy Carlos performed the great classics of Johann Sebastian Bach on the then-new Moog Synthesizer, giving “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and the Brandenburg Concertos a radical realization that seemed so right for the late 20th century. Because of this album I started listening to traditional performances of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and so many other classical masters, learning something from each composer along the way.

Rock, classical and folk music fed me in my teen years, but another style of music definitely caught my ear because of the Charlie Brown television specials. There was something so mesmerizing about watching Snoopy dance with abandon to the jazz riffs of Vince Guaraldi. I bought the Charlie Brown Christmas album and listened to it repeatedly, even in July. Jazz was definitely in a world unto itself, so different and so cool. I was just starting to get good on the piano, playing in the styles of Paul McCartney and Elton John. But I wanted to also play like Vince Guaraldi and couldn’t figure out how.

Classical musicians have difficulty understanding how a jazz musician can improvise so freely and easily. The performance of a jazz song is different every time. Although jazz musicians do read music — “lead sheets” that feature only melody and chords — this is a far cry from the precisely notated octavos and scores used by classical musicians. Jazz musicians don’t read classical scores but they do know music theory, in their head and in their heart. A jazz musician-in-training has to spend endless hours playing scales and chords IN ALL TWELVE KEYS, memorizing patterns and harmonic approaches that will eventually equip them to improvise and comp (play the basic support for improvisers) with other jazz musicians. It’s a code, a secret code that most people have no patience to learn. Did I mention that all this theory has to be memorized?

I have been trying to crack the jazz code for most of my adult life, with little success until quite recently. It has taken years of listening to records and CDs, attending jazz concerts, studying jazz theory, and even taking a jazz piano course at a community college, and I still don’t have it all down. I admit, I don’t have the time or patience to memorize scales, patterns and chords IN ALL TWLEVE KEYS, but I know enough now to incorporate jazz theory in my sacred music. And that has been my goal all along.

In the 1970s I discovered a marvelous album called Vince Guaraldi: The Grace Cathedral Concert. In 1965, as part of the experimentation in liturgy that was sweeping the country, Bishop James A. Pike and the Rev. C. Julian Bartlett, rector of the cathedral of the Episcopal Church in San Francisco, invited the Vince Guaraldi Trio to perform a jazz Mass at the landmark church. I couldn’t believe my ears. Here was the sacred text of the Anglican liturgy, almost a word-for-word match of the Roman Catholic liturgy, sung by a cathedral choir that was accompanied by the hottest jazz pianist of the decade. This jazzy merging of traditional and contemporary assaulted my soul like nothing before or since. I must have played Guaraldi’s rendition of “Adoro Te Devote” (“Humbly We Adore Thee”) over and over until the record grooves wore down. I was smitten and promised myself that someday, I would make sacred music like this.

Alas, I never became the accomplished jazz musician of my dreams (I’m still working on it) but I did become a liturgical composer. And although I have had success over the years with both liturgical and youth ministry music, I still had a yearning to bring jazz to the liturgy. That opportunity came in 2008 as I was planning tracks for my upcoming Doxology CD.

Doxology was something of a risk for me. People generally know me from the gospel-inspired Mass of Glory and from such upbeat youth ministry songs like “Bless the Lord” and “Holy Spirit.” Doxology would be a way to showcase my love for both contemporary and traditional sacred music, with modern renditions of “O Sanctissima” and “All Hail Adored Trinity.” It was now or never. I realized here was my opportunity to do something with jazz.

For many years, I had been playing a jazz arrangement for the Easter hymn, “Ye Sons and Daughters,” which is based on a haunting medieval chant melody. Notated in modern hymnals in 3/4 time, the tune can be expressed as a jazz waltz and, with the right jazz chords, can really soar. I just needed new words to reflect the Trinity theme of Doxology. Like manna from heaven, I received in the mail new Trinity lyrics by the dear Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB, a noted hymn writer. She used “Ye Sons and Daughters” as a template for her new hymn, “O Triune God.” I thanked Father, Son and Holy Spirit for this gift and submitted my jazz arrangement to the OCP editors, who gave me an enthusiastic green light.

What a jazz combo we assembled at Dead Aunt Thelma’s Studio! I was blessed to work with stellar Portland session musicians: Tim Ellis on guitar, Phil Baker on bass, Mike Snyder on drums, Clark Bondy on saxophone, and the incomparable jazz pianist, Rick Modlin. That summer afternoon session is forever burned in my memory. I gave them the charts and told the guys I wanted something that was both cool and sacred. They delivered in just a couple of takes, staying true to the original hymn tune while improvising creatively. All that was left was the vocals.

I almost fell on the floor when our producer Kevin Walsh informed me that he had successfully recruited Rebecca Kilgore to sing the lead. Are you kidding me? Rebecca Kilgore, the famed jazz singer? I had not realized that she lived in Portland and was rubbing my eyes as she walked into the studio. She nailed it in just a few takes, of course. “Ye Sons and Daughters” is basically a repetitive chant, and Rebecca respected its simplicity while infusing it with her own jazz sensibility.

Does jazz have a place in the sacred liturgy? Do we dare blend the sacred with the secular? I wrote a whole book on this topic: Keep the Fire Burning. Although the book is about the revolution of folk music in liturgy, I believe the same principles apply to jazz. In my next blog I will write more about that. In the meantime, please click here and give “O Triune God” a listen. I hope it helps people expand their horizons on sacred music. Yes, God is very cool indeed.

Rebecca Kilgore and me