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What’s Your Favorite Hymn?

Ask the average churchgoer what their favorite hymn is and you’ll get a myriad of responses based on age, gender, theological viewpoint and religious denomination. A recent informal survey elicited this response from a variety of church friends:

  • How Great Thou Art
  • Amazing Grace
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful
  • For the Beauty of the Earth
  • Blest Be the Tie That Binds
  • What a Friend We Have in Jesus
  • I Love to Tell the Story

The list goes on and on and is limited only by the longevity of one’s church membership. Ask the same question to a church musician and you are likely to hear a slightly different list of names:

  • Ode to Joy
  • Slane
  • Beach Spring
  • Hyfrydol
  • St. Anne
  • Passion Chorale
  • Picardy
  • O Waly Waly

Those, of course, are the original names of the hymn tunes, many of which are slightly more harmonically complex than the Old Rugged Cross (Toplady). We all have our favorite hymns. Some of us base our favorites on the words, while others of us judge our hymns by melody and harmony. It seems clear thought, that the more time you’ve spent pew sitting, the stronger your opinion will be regarding the top ten greatest hymns of all time.

Our latest collection of hymn arrangements (volume #6) include some of our personal favorites. Each one crafted in the genre of jazz to make it even more compelling. So, whether you refer to the hymn as Beecher or Love Divine, All Loves Excelling . . . Vienna or Take My Life and Let It Be . . . our arrangements will provide you with a new twist to an old, beloved tune. And, as always, if you download one of our volumes, please let us know how the arrangements were received in your congregation.

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Easter: “Listen Here”

Never in a million years would the average person equate Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here” with Easter. It’s not religious, liturgical or Spiritual. But it’s full of energy. It’s out of the 60’s era when jazz was bending toward rock, fusion, electronics – just about anything to be heard amid the noisy music of the day. Less and less people were listening to “cool” jazz and turning to the British invasion: The Beatles, Rolling Stones and their American offspring.

“Listen Here?” Is this a great composition? No. Is the musicianship virtuosic? No. Is the theme deeply existential? No. Is it party time. Yes!

When I was pondering what song I would include for this Easter blog I tried to recall those times in my life when I was jumping with joy, filled with the enthusiasm of the spirit, dancing even during the tough times. Believe it or not, this reminded me of house cleaning – when I was home alone, tidying up the house and was looking for inspiration during the tedium of dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, washing, etc. What would I do? Put “Listen Here” on the stereo and turn up the volume to stun! Then I would dance through cleaning the house and end up feelin’ good.

So, veering away from all the jazz masters and the deep music of Lent, I offer up Eddie Harris and his electric sax on “Listen Here.” Give it a listen and dance in the Spirit of Easter.

Wild Easter Blessings!

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Holy Week 2017: “Steal Away”

With Palm Sunday now behind us, Holy Week moves into Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. My song selection this week is the old African-American Spiritual, “Steal Away,” performed by two great jazz legends, pianist Hank Jones and bassist Charlie Haden. Both deeply spiritual people and phenomenal musicians their careers have spanned the decades.

“Steal Away” was nominated for a Grammy in 1996. Both Hank (2010) and Charlie (2014) have since passed but their music lives on. I invite you to give a listen to “Steal Away” and feel the presence of the deep abiding Spirit. It’s a perfect song to have playing in your head as you go through the next few days.

If you’re in the St. Louis area this Friday you are invited to attend Good Friday Blues: A Jazz Lamentation, at First Congregational Church, UCC in Webster Groves. The Oîkos Ensemble will be performing some classic jazz blues standards by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, plus the Billie Holiday classic, “Strange Fruit. We’ll retell the passion story through choral reading. Rev. Geoffrey Black (retired General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ) will offer a poetic reading from the long, lost journal of the mysterious Gospel writer, Mark. I hope you’ll steal away and join us this Friday.

Holy Week Jazz Blessings.

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Lent #6: “The 23rd Psalm”

Looking back through the past five entries it’s “interesting” to see the music that has come into my meditation life—“Spiritual” (Trane), “Prayer” (Jarrett), “Aung San Suu Kui” (Shorter), “Alabama” (Trane again), and “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. And now for something completely different: The 23rd Psalm by Bobby McFerrin.

Bobby is one of the great vocal improvisers of all time. His body and voice are his instrument, and his imaginative mind is the creative force that propels his artistry. I had the opportunity (blessing, really) to perform with Bobby once and it is a musically spiritual event I shall never forget.

His vocal improvisation on Psalm 23 is effortless, and his switching of pronouns to the feminine is a theological work of art. Bobby grew up in the Episcopal Church and was deeply influenced by the music, particularly the chants. He dedicates this arrangement to his Mother. In an interview with Krista Tippett on her show, On Being, he says that he wrote the song in a the feminine because he “wanted to remind people that for a lot of people . . . when they think of their fathers, some of them might not have had great relationships with their dads. And . . . some of them don’t have great relationships with their mothers. But sometimes we forget the feminine element in religious service. And I just wanted to bring that out.”

And the feminine imagery of God brings beauty and depth not only to music but to a theological understanding of who we are as children of God. If you haven’t heard it there are many, many versions on You Tube—his original version and countless performances by choral groups and soloists. Take a few moment and listen to anyone of these performances and be filled with a genuine sense of grace and peace. It’s a perfect song for this Lenten season.

Lenten Jazz Blessings.

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Lent #5: “Strange Fruit

If Lent is truly a time of prayer and penance, acknowledging the sinful self, seeking atonement and preparing for the promise of Easter, then surely it is a time to look inward and admit that each of us bears a “dark side” that is complicit with the ills and evils of our world. In a recent conversation a friend said, “I always thought of myself as a good person, and I am, but there is another side of me that I’ve let lie hidden, and it’s pretty dark.” He’s not the only one.

One song, in particular, brings this out full force. “Strange Fruit” sung by Billie Holiday is a song that reveals the results of hatred and bigotry that have been the basis of racism for so long in our country, and the world. It speaks (sings) to the lynching of blacks in the south that took place over decades. The same sinful intent is still alive today in the culturally racism that pervades our lives. “Strange Fruit” could be said to be an anthem to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Southern trees bear strange fruit: blood on the leaves and blood at the root—black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south: the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth; scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck; for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop.

We’ll be performing “Strange Fruit” at our Good Friday Blues worship service as we acknowledge the ways in which Christ is still crucified in our world today. It’s a difficult song to perform because it hits so close to home. But then again, Lent should not be a time of ease and comfort.

Lenten Jazz Blessings.

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Lent #4: Alabama

lentColtrane again. Even after all these years (he died in 1967 at the age of 40) I’m energized and renewed every time I hear his music. His music is so alive, it’s almost like hearing it again for the first time. One particular composition, “Alabama” has stuck with me every since I heard it years ago.

Trane 4Trane wrote “Alabama” in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on June 15, 1963 by the Ku Klux Klan. The blast killed four young girls and became another rallying point in the civil rights movement.

It is one of the most evocative compositions I’ve ever heard. It brings the horrific event into a musical reality. The pain, sadness and angst bring the raw emotions to the surface. If Lent is a time of sadness, a season to reflect on the harsh realities of life through Jesus’ journey to the cross, then “Alabama” is Lent’s true lament.

Listen to the original recording (Live at Birdland) or an early TV program, Jazz Casual. Both were recorded in 1963 after the bombing, with the painful reality echoing in the music. It still echoes today.

Lenten Jazz Blessings.

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Lent #3: Aung San Suu Kyi

lentEvery jazz musician has his or her gurus—jazz icons who, through their jazz “chops” and musical invention, inspired them to become the musicians they are. As a saxophonist, my answer (to anyone wishing to know which saxophonist was most influential in my jazz development) is easy—John Coltrane. As a ground breaking musician with a deep spiritual reservoir, Trane always will be at the top of my list. But coming in at a close second is Wayne Shorter.

wayne-01Wayne has been around for a long time, beginning his career with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, performing with Miles Davis, and then during the jazz-fusion era he co-founded Weather Report with pianist, Joe Zawinul. Many of Shorter’s compositions have become jazz standards: Footprints, Infant Eyes, Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, Black Nile and many, many more. He’s performed outside the jazz arena with Joni Mitchell and Carlos Santana.

During this Lent I’m listening intently to Ang San Suu Kyi, from his album 1 + 1 with Herbie Hancock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rspu8iciF7U. The song won the Grammy Award for the best instrumental composition of 1997.

The song is his tribute to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Prize winner from Myanmar who was placed under house arrest by the Burmese military for more than twenty years. Her crime? Espousing democratic ideals, and winning the presidential election of 1990 by an overwhelming margin. In 2010 she was released and again won the country’s top election post. Well, almost. Seems that due to political technicalities she was forbidden to assume the presidency, but became the State Counselor, and for all intensive purposes, the country’s political leader.

maxresdefaultI’ve never heard the story of how Shorter was inspired to compose the music but I can guess that it had something to do with his Buddhist philosophy and deep concern for humanity. Shorter doesn’t like to comment on his music. He lets his horn do the talking. There are several concert versions of Ang San Suu Kyi that you can find on You Tube. My favorite is his live performance in 2003 at the Montreal Jazz Festival with his quartet—Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xtbwnZroPc

It begins with an extended free form piano solo before getting to the melody and solos. I had the privilege to hear the group perform at the Tri-C Jazz Festival In Cleveland, about a decade ago. It was one of the most incredible musical performances I’ve ever experienced. This week I’m delving deeply into this song as my Lenten meditation.

Lenten Jazz Blessings.

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Lent #2: “Prayer”

lentMoving into the second week in Lent my musical focus turns to “Prayer” by pianist Keith Jarrett. It’s a beautifully simple duet between Jarrett and bassist Charlie Haden from the album Death and the Flower recorded in 1974. If you don’t know this exquisite little melody and want to hear how Keith and Charlie explored it you can go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8VIipPKeith-JarrettCharlie-HadenNmUo

I have played “Prayer” in worship many times, as a call to prayer, a musical background beneath spoken prayer, a jazz meditation, as an offertory and as part of the sermon. I love the melody so much that I’ve put lyrics to it. Sung by my daughter Arianna, the music has deeply touched worshippers. As you listen to the music online I invite you to meditate on these words:

In the midst of all chaos I offer a prayer. As the world turns around me in pain and despair I remember your promise that flows everywhere.

In the twilight and darkness when day turns to night. In each moment of sadness you offer me sight. I remember your promise and enter your light.

In the touch of another I sense you are near, sharing moments of blessing there’s nothing to fear. I remember your promise and my way seems clear.

It’s a prayer of thanksgiving, a prayer of delight. It’s a prayer of contrition, a prayer seeking right. We remember your promise and enter your light.

This prayer is personal for the first three verses, then becomes a corporate prayer with the affirmation that “we remember your promise and enter the light.” May this Lenten season be a simply beautiful time of prayer as you enter the light of the Spirit. If you’re performing this song in worship please feel free to use these lyrics (just list me as lyricist).

Lenten Jazz Blessings.

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Lent #1: “Spiritual”

lentIt’s so easy to get bogged down in the lure of “shoulds” and “oughts” in our lives. Even though most people consider me retired, my life is busier than ever. I just don’t have a steady day gig occupying my time. I do have, however, a more fluid lifestyle allowing me to pursue a host of worthwhile projects. After I wrote my last blog entry (two months ago!) I quickly listed 12 major goals for 2017: all important parts of my creative calling. But now it’s Lent—a “stop sign” reminding me to pause and refocus my life: spiritually, physically, vocationally and creatively.

So, I’m committing myself to six weeks of discipline and discovery. Part of my intent is to focus on one jazz composition/performance each week as a way to reaffirm the anchors in my life while exploring the improvisational freedom of the Spirit. I begin with a John Coltrane masterpiece, “Spiritual,” (https://www.youtube.com/watcjohn-coltrane-121024h?v=rkY_zTKzPCY) This version features McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) at a live performance in Stockholm in 1963.

During the past year I’ve been a contributing writer for the United Church of Christ Musician’s Journal. In my most recent article I wrote the following, “I belief that when we jazz musicians play, we perform a sacred rite; we are at prayer. We are never more deeply in communion with the Holy than when we’re improvising—fashioning spontaneous melodies, harmonies and rhythms as an act of giving—a holy offering to God and the listener.”

Trane’s “Spiritual” is a perfect example of improvising in this spirit. While it was never composedimages and performed as liturgical music, it is for me a spiritual, and I would contend, a worshipful offering that touches my soul deeply. I love the deep resonance of Trane’s tenor sax as the song begins and his switch to soprano after McCoy’s soul. I can visual the quartet on stage offering their interpretive talents to the audience. It may not have been in church but I daresay that many in the audience were lifted to new heights by their music.

I will listen to “Spiritual” this week and make a commitment to playing it in my daily practice as a spiritual discipline to help guide me through this season of Lent. May this season of Lenten meditation be a time of renewal and refocusing for you.

If you prefer to listen to the original studio recording just link to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3AeL4ED8oM.

Lenten Jazz Blessings.

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Jazz Noel

jazz-noel-2xAnother Christmas has eased into a new year. Where does the time go? I can’t believe I’ve been so lax in my blogging. Well, yes, I can believe it. It’s been a crazy couple of months. All good—but a whirlwind craziness that’s kept me juggling and dancing non-stop. The big event being was Jazz Noel. This is the sixth year in a row that I’ve led Oîkos in a Christmas jazz program here in St. Louis.

The first four years were an on-going Jazz Nativity series blending jazz with imaginative storytelling. During those programs we’ve had a number of creative characters retell the Christmas story from their point of view—the prophet Isaiah (a homeless woman), the angel Gabriel (a hip trumpeter), the innkeeper’s wife and daughter (cut the innkeeper some slack!), the Fourth Magi (didn’t know she was part of the entourage?), two wacky angels (Holly & Ivy), plus two elders (Anna and Simeon). A wonderful series, but two years ago I decided to cut back the dramatic production and focus on the music. Jazz to the World was a jazzy Christmas celebration with vignettes of holiday traditions from around the globe.

Year after year, after each performance without fail, someone would come up afterwards to thank us and say how much they enjoyed the worship service. Well, it was never planned as a service of worship, but to many it had a worshipful feel and touched a deep spiritual nerve. So this year I decided it was time to compose a liturgical Christmas celebration.jazz-noel2-300x200

Jazz Noel blended the creative retelling of the Christmas story with three readers highlighting the four chapters of the narrative: Joseph’s dilemma with a pregnant Mary, Mary and Joseph’s arduous trip to Bethlehem, surprised shepherds visiting the manger, and the Magi’s journey to acknowledge the new born king. Each story was accompanied by original poetry and jazz arrangements from the Oîkos septet. And through it all, artist Michael Anderson painted a wonderful portrait focused on the theme of holy light beckoning the world to follow the Prince of Peace. Pastor Dave Denoon offered a Christmas prayer in collaboration with Oîkos playing “A Child is Born” and worshipers had an opportunity to sing creative arrangements of “When God is a Child,” “The First Noel,” and “Joy to the World.” It was not your usual vesper service, but that’s what jazz in worship is all about—taking the usual, giving it a creative spin and inviting worshipers to explore the deep, inner terrain of the soul.

May your jazz journeys in 2017 open up new vistas to challenge and deepen your faith.