Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A spiritual journey: Opening hearts and minds

All great music is a gift and thus an instrument of God.
~ Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis, the 52-year-old Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning trumpeter, who is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has created the beautiful and inspiring Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration, a landmark collaboration of jazz, gospel, instrumentation and vocals, which unites secular and sacred music. While it is structured and progresses like a Roman Catholic or Anglican Mass, it's also rich in the African-American Baptist tradition, too.

"The theme of the Mass is that everyone has a place in the house of God," Marsalis said during a recent interview with the Boston Globe. "We're the most integrated nation ever, at least in the modern world that we know about. For our music to be, we have an identity but that identity is already universal. I try to find the core values that are so fundamental that they transcend ethnic identity. That doesn't mean I run from it. I embrace African-American culture and I love it and embrace it, but it is a part of a human identity. So, I'm always trying to make a larger human statement."

Damien Sneed, conductor
 of the Abyssinian Mass.
Recently, Marsalis took the Abyssinian Mass on a 16-city tour that included performances in Dallas, New Orleans, Kansas City, St. Louis, Augusta, Ga., and Washington, D.C, playing in both concert halls and churches. Last weekend, the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra along with the 70-voice Chorale Le Chateau, guided by the stylish and exuberant 34-year-old choral director Damien Sneed, who conducted the mass, returned to the "House of Swing" in New York City and presented Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration before three sold-out audiences at the Rose Theater. It was broadcast online via a world-wide webcast.

In watching Saturday evening's demanding performance online in the comfort of my living room, I became riveted by Abyssinian's libretto, its celebratory joy and its profound message. The choir was full of spirit. The orchestra clearly was enjoying itself. And, the spirited sermonizing from the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, brought much charisma to the presentation. There was a whole lot of feeling in that show.

"The choir brings the fire and the choir brings the truth to the Abyssinian Mass," Sneed told NPR. "The choir brings the spirit, it's like the haaaaaa, the breadth of God."

Amen, amen, amen. O Father we go forth in Thy Holy Name.

Wynton Marsalis solos
during the Abyssinian Mass.
Indeed, the music in Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration is not just gospel and it's more than just jazz, too. There's also an element of classic music that resembles Handel's Messiah. 

The work originally had its premiere in 2008 as a commission in honor of the 200th anniversary of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. It made its European debut in 2012 at London's Barbican Theatre.

In a recent interview with NPR's John Burnett that aired on Weekend Edition Saturday as part of its year-long series "Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America," celebrating the diversity and richness of sacred music in the U.S., Marsalis explained how different kinds of music are related -- the universality of rhythm -- showing how a rolling 6/8 rhythm is found in both African and Anglican religious music. Tapping his fingers on a notebook and humming "a complicated pattern," Marsalis remarked how "in a slower tempo, it would be 'Greensleeves.'" He demonstrates by scat-singing the melody. "All the musics are related."

Some additional observations Burnett shared in his NPR story about Marsalis and the 17 movements that comprise the Abyssinian Mass:

"(It) digs deeply into what Marsalis would call 'the soil' of the black church: its shouts, its dirges, its spirituals, it hymns of praise. With this work, he celebrates the seminal influence the church has had on the music of black Americans, and the continuing pull it exerts on his own artistic and spiritual life.

"Marsalis used the joyful stylings of the African-American gospel tradition to deliver a musical message of universal humanity. He says he tried to put it all in there: God and Allah exultation and the blues, Saturday night and Sunday morning."

Glory to God in the Highest! Glory to God in the Highest!

After the tour's final show Sunday night in Boston's Symphony Hall, Marsalis took a moment to reflect on many positive things that stood out, which he chronicled on his Facebook page.

"When Chris Crenshaw started to sing the Benediction tonight, the choir began co-signing him, 'Come On Deacon, Preach brother! Make it plain.' He sang these words with a powerful clarity:

"Lord, from you all things. Though we are many in life and death, we are truly one. Just the calling of your Holy name releases us to perceive the oneness in all, of all. You have given us, through your word, the divine thought. And the divine thought IS the divine manifestation IS holy action."

For Marsalis, "that is the power of prayer in whatever religion, or none at all."

After the two-and-one-half hour online performance concluded Saturday evening, I realized I didn't want it to end. Listening to Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration attentively, it brought out a lot of emotions and moods. It was very joyful and uplifting. It gave me pause to reflect upon what a blessing it was to be part of such a glorious experience and full-circle journey.


You can watch the entire Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration via: http://wyntonmarsalis.org/live/.
Photographs courtesy of artsneworleans.org, NPR.org, kplu.org

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