Marsalis summons the spirit

NEW YORK — In the early days of jazz in New Orleans, Saturday night was the flip side of Sunday morning. The call-and-response dynamic among a band’s players was inspired by preacher and congregation; trumpeters emulated the bent-note wails and chants of gospel song.

In the mid-‘60s, after rock ‘n’ roll had supplanted jazz as the new “devil’s music,” Duke Ellington took jazz back to the church with his “sacred concerts,” which sought to amplify scripture much like Bach’s cantatas had. No one has since aimed to take on Ellington’s mantle in the African-American spiritual arena as directly as trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis, the Crescent City-bred head of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Marsalis, 46, has touched on jazz’s gospel legacy multiple times, most extensively with “In This House, On This Morning,” a mostly instrumental “jazz mass” written for his sublime early-‘90s septet. His latest, most ambitious effort is “Abyssinian 200: A Celebration,” a jazz mass with chorus written for the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Marsalis and his orchestra premiered the piece last week in three performances with the 100-strong Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir in Rose Theater of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. Spanning about two hours, including a mild, ecumenical sermon by church pastor Rev. Calvin Butts III, “Abyssinian 200” starts with some of richest, most stirring music Marsalis has ever summoned, steeped in a classic gospel-jazz tradition brought vividly to life by his performers.

In the opening Devotional, the choir hums a blues-drenched, wordless melody as beautiful peals and smears rise from the brass, a doleful grandeur filling the air as Marsalis’ text evokes an absence of brotherhood, sacred or secular — “I didn’t hear nobody prayin’/ I didn’t hear nobody sayin’.” The choir’s call-and-response on “Yes, Lord” raised the hair on one’s neck. Marsalis, who sat in the band’s back row, let out a keening, deeply moving solo that hinted at the Eastern tinge to the music in Ethiopia (once called Abyssinia), the native country of several church founders.

As with most of Marsalis’ extended works — including his Pulitzer-winning oratorio “Blood on the Fields” — “Abyssinian 200” doesn’t sustain its intensity. The score fades after its midpoint, with the anachronisms becoming plainer. His passing rhythmic nod to John Coltrane’s divine suite “A Love Supreme” was subtle, but Marsalis built the Recessional on an evocation of a train; this has a metaphoric utility — a gathering of steam for the journey to salvation — but many composers would be embarrassed to use a device worn thin before World War II.

The ending, too, was anticlimactic, with Marsalis’ stab at a seraphic vocal melody for the Amen sounding like vague Broadway pastiche. Yet “Abyssinian 200” still cast a spell, thanks to Marsalis’ ear for ensemble textures and the exuberant virtuosity of his performers. Individual singers stepped out for melisma-filled solos as the choir swayed to the rhythm section’s swing. Trumpeter Marcus Printup had both choir and audience shouting affirmations as he stood for a spectacular flourish.

The Harlem church hosts an encore of “Abyssinia 200” Saturday. That should be an especially immersive experience, the congregation’s give-and-take reinforcing the spirit of the grooves.

by Bradley Bambarger

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