Wynton Marsalis’ expression of faith: ‘The Abyssinian Mass’

It’s a theme that trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has considered deeply and often in his career as composer: faith.

With “The Abyssinian Mass,” a three-disc set that Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will release Friday, the composer returns to the subject, in expansive form.

Those who have followed Marsalis’ evolution since the 1980s, when he emerged as a trumpet virtuoso equally fluent in jazz and classical languages, know that the intertwined subjects of faith and religion long have coursed through his work. Even his first great suite, “The Majesty of the Blues” (1989), contained at its center a vast sermon (though it addressed not religion but the nobility of jazz in our commercialized music world).

Music of the church, which always has been embedded in the DNA of jazz, appeared explicitly in Marsalis’ three-CD set “Soul Gestures in Southern Blue” (1991). This atmospheric, pictorial suite evoked various landscapes and epochs, its spiritual message expressed in the hushed intensity of “Psalm 26” and “Prayer,” from the “Uptown Ruler” volume.

But Marsalis explored faith and religion most rigorously in two sprawling works that have led up to “The Abyssinian Mass,” each a major statement in its own right.

“In This House, On This Morning” (1994), penned for Marsalis’ great septet of that era, amounted to a gospel church service steeped in the language of jazz. When the work had its American premiere on a June evening in historic Quinn Chapel on the South Side of Chicago, you felt as if you were attending a Sunday morning gathering in which instrumentalists had stormed the pulpit to prove once and for all that jazz and faith are eternally bound together.

“All Rise” (premiered in 1999 and released on CD in 2002), encompassed what was then called the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra plus symphony orchestra and choir, roughly 200 musicians delving unflinchingly into themes of struggle and salvation. Although “All Rise” embraced everything from American blues to Brazilian samba to New Orleans parade music, its core message of faith and optimism in the face of adversity radiated through every page and especially its finale, “I Am,” a quasi-religious statement.

At one point the choristers in “All Rise” chant, “Save us … for we know not what we do,” Marsalis in these passages, and elsewhere, articulating universal spiritual yearnings. Little wonder CNN broadcast portions of the Hollywood Bowl performance of “All Rise” live on Sept. 13, 2001 — in a long-planned performance that happened to take place two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

All of this has set the stage for Marsalis’ “The Abyssinian Mass,” performed by the JALC Orchestra, the Chorale le Chateau and its vocal soloists. Like “All Rise,” the new work offers hope for the human condition despite evidence to the contrary. Like “In This House, On This Morning,” it reflects the shape of a church service.

“It’s a piece that’s based on the form of the typical Baptist service in the Afro-American church, but it incorporates elements of the entire Christian church tradition,” Marsalis says in a bonus DVD featuring his commentary alongside video clips (the first two discs are CD recordings of the complete work, as performed Oct. 24-26, 2013 in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York).

Commissioned to mark the 200th anniversary of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the epic work begins with an exclamation point, the band’s big-swing exuberance, heady reed-section trills and slashing jazz chords reminding listeners that Marsalis knows how to get our attention.

Before long, the choir is humming insinuatingly, evoking the Holy Ghost in the Mass’ opening Devotional movement. Singer Jamal Moore reaches down into the depths of his magisterial bass to sing “I didn’t hear nobody prayin’,” as if calling all humanity together for the rites that are set to begin. In all, it’s a brilliant curtain-raiser hinting at the music yet to come, from the jazz-swing orations of the orchestra to the vocal incantations of the Chorale le Chateau and soloists.

And so we’re off, the composer building “The Abyssinian Mass” on jazz, gospel and blues musical idioms and on a libretto “based on multiple religious texts as interpreted by Wynton Marsalis,” according to the album’s extensive liner notes. What we’re hearing — and what audiences experienced during the 2013 national tour — is Marsalis’ personalized merger of religious service and philosophical statement, sacred impulse and secular concert presentation.

In the course of 23 movements spread across two discs, “The Abyssinian Mass” thunders and sighs, its massively scored passages yielding to plaintive vocal solos, its full-throated choral sections giving way to introspective instrumental cadenzas. Though Damien Sneed is listed as conducting orchestra and chorus, in fact he’s presiding over uncounted combinations of voices and instruments, “The Abyssinian Mass” so fluid that if often changes tempo, direction and tone during the course of a single episode.

At its narrative center stands a three-part sermon by the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, III, his spoken words as musical as anything uttered by chorus or orchestra.

“Tonight this place has been sanctified by the power of God’s spirit,” he intones early on in his soliloquy, organ softly swelling in the background. “And that spirit has been brought forth by the voices and the instruments that praise God tonight.”

Soon the chorus sings, “Yes, this house is God’s house,” as listeners rise and clap to the beat, performers and audience merged as one.

“There are so many times that we don’t feel unified,” Butts continues, while members of the JALC Orchestra rumble alongside, like parishioners saying “amen.”

“We’re separated, we’re divided: Protestant against Catholic, Muslim against Jew, Buddhist against Hindu. We’re divided by custom, we’re divided by ritual, we’re divided by tradition. But one thing I noticed, how about you? And that is that there’s one thing that seems to pull us all together. And that’s the power of prayer.”

Therein lies the central message of “The Abyssinian Mass,” which seeks salvation through faith. If Butts’ sermon crystallizes the point in words, Marsalis’ “Pastoral Prayer” movement does so in music. This sprawling, multi-section piece overflows with ornate vocal solos, flurries from Marsalis’ trumpet , gospel-tinged orchestral interludes, fevered solo flights from alto saxophonist Sherman Irby and serene expressions from the chorus.

Elsewhere “The Abyssinian Mass” offers the soaring vocal passages of “The Lord’s Prayer,” hyper-virtuosic reed-section passagework in “Gloria Patri” and surging, redemptive choral climaxes in “Through Him I’ve Come to See.”

Longtime Marsalis listeners will recognize certain musical ideas that surface throughout his oeuvre. His love of portraying the clatter and rhythm of locomotives, in works such as “Big Train” (1999), re-emerges in the Recessional to “The Abyssinian Mass,” aptly titled “The Glory Train.” And the spirit of the “Holy Ghost” movement of “In This House” echoes in Marsalis’ and Marcus Printup’s trumpet cries answering Butts’ sermon.

The repeated applause on the new recording, released on Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Blue Engine Records label, can be somewhat distracting, breaking the spell the music has created. And the Processional “We Are on Our Way” sounds a bit too euphoric so early in the piece, in light of the struggles yet to come.

Yet these are extremely minor quibbles with a massive work that rewards repeated hearings. Like the sanctified jazz expressions of Duke Ellington (the Sacred Concerts), John Coltrane (“A Love Supreme”) and Dave Brubeck (“The Gates of Justice”), among others, Marsalis’ “The Abyssinian Mass” stands as a monumental opus from a composer-performer with a great deal to say about subjects profoundly worth contemplating.

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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