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“My music is the spiritual expression of who I am”

imagesThe great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane once said: “My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being.”

Trane wasn’t only a fantastically gifted musician, he was a remarkable spiritual individual. All you have to do is listen to his music and it becomes obvious that the depth of his musical ideas came from more than rigorous wood-shedding. At its core, his music was a spiritual soundscape that he invited listeners to explore in their own life’s path. It seems to me there’s a parallel here. Trane couldn’t separate his music from his life. What he played was what he lived and how he lived became a musical expression as well.

Some of the most musical people I know can’t play a note on an instrument. Some of the most spiritual people I know are artists (and other folk) who don’t seem very religious, if you know what I mean. Some of my most inspirational musical moments have come when I’ve seen the light go on in a person’s countenance while I’m playing with Oîkos. A smile erupts, a head nods, a sigh emerges… you can almost hear an amen. To touch another person with the Spirit of your art is a special thing. Trane was right. “To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep.”

Expressive blessings,

Cliff

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Performance as Worship

A few years back the Oîkos Ensemble led Sunday morning worship at a church in Cleveland. It was a great jazz service, with musicians and worshipers performing the dance of creative liturgy together. Performing? That’s a presumptuous thing to say when you’re leading worship. The commonly held idea is that we’re not supposed to perform in worship. Performance, when praising God is somehow unseemly, egotistical . . . blasphemous?

I believe the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, had the correct assessment of worship as performance. We are not to be passive pew participants seated before our worship leaders—preacher, choir, musicians. Our role as worshipers is to be on centeMe Angie Glenn Rickyr stage to act out our faith and perform for God, who is our ever-present audience. So perform we did with Chris Bakriges on piano, Ricky Exton on drums and Glenn Holmes on bass. And, we had the good fortune to have Angela Lynard as our vocalist to assist worshipers in their performance before God.

At the conclusion of worship I had two powerful conversations. One, with an older woman who reminder me that we led a jazz playshop more than two years earlier that changed her life. I had asked participants to engage in creative punctuation artistry, which enabled her to understand the transitional place her life was in, ultimately helping her to make a decisive change that was transforming. The other, a younger woman, confessed that she had just stumbled into church that morning not expecting much and the music had touched her deeply, lifting her spirits and giving her the courage to face a difficult issue in her life.

Whew! The power of the music is amazing, especially when grounded in the Spirit. It’s a humbling experience doing this thing called Oîkos. Time and time again people express how our music, stories and creativity have awakened them in unexpected ways. I guess that’s why I love doing this ministry. You never know when or where transformation will strike. And whose life will be changed.

Performance blessings,

Cliff

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Worship in a New Key now available for download

After months of planning, preparation, arranEllacombe Sampleging, website development and promotional design we are about to go live. Volume 1 of Worship in a New Key is now available to for download. Included in this initial volume are 12 popular hymn tunes: Ellacombe, Eventide, Holy Mana, Hyfrydol, Hymn to Joy, Nettleton, New Britain, Nicaea, Puer Nobis Nascitur, Slane, St. Anne. and St. Denio.

These familiar melodies are the basis for at least 40 hymns found in the most common hymnals of today. Each hymn tune has a creative arrangement complete with jazz chord notation for C, Bb, Eb and Bass Clef instrumentation . . . and performance notes providing ideas on how to get the most out of each arrangement. Couple this with the jazz resources on the home page of this website, and church musicians and ministers have the basic ingredients for incorporating jazz into worship. Ordered individually, each hymn tune is just $2.50. The entire collection is only $20, so it’s like getting 4 arrangements free.

We’re excited about sharing these jazz resources and hope that they will deepen your worship as you embrace the spirit of jazz in your congregation. We hope to hear from you as you share your experiences so that we can begin a web conversation about the impact of jazz in your worship.

Also, stay tuned for volume 2. In the next few weeks we’ll be featuring arrangements for 12 Christmas carols to jazz up your holiday worship and seasonal programs.

Jazz Blessings,

Cliff & Tim

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Musical Blessings

Ed Thigpen“Musicians should never forget that we’re blessed.We have a special gift that people can enjoy through us. We’ve had the good fortune to receive this and pass it along to others.”             —Ed Thigpen

 

Drummer, Ed Thigpen, who died a few years ago, performed with some true jazz greats, particularly pianist’s Billy Taylor and Oscar Peterson. While I never met Ed, or heard him perform in person, I remember listening to him on records as I was growing up. He had a great sense of swing. And, as the above quotes illustrates, a great spirit with a sense of purpose in sharing his music as a blessing.

I’m continuing to review some of my journal entries from several years ago. I thought you might enjoy the following reflection written after performing at a fundraising event in Wilmington, Vermont for an organization called “Twice Blessed.”

It was not the usual Oîkos affair rooted in worship, but the music had a spiritual energy. “Twice Blessed” is a community thrift store that provides goods and services (at low cost) to help those in need. We were playing to raise funds to help the organization continue to provide financial help where it was needed most. The irony of the fundraiser was that it took place at exactly the time when the US banking and financial system seemed in terminal meltdown. (Looking back, who would have guessed the financial turmoil that would ensue?). And, who do you suppose was in the audience? None other than Alan Greenspan (who had recently retired as Chair of the Federal Reserve).

I didn’t know he was in the audience while I was playing and only found out after the gig. So, I never had the chance to get his opinion on the economic catastrophe taking place at that very moment. Not that I would have understood a word he might have said. Economics to me might as well be rocket science. So, a further irony was that on my four-hour drive back to Lake Winnipesauke where I was vacationing, I thought about economy.

The name of my band, Oîkos, is derived from the Greek—literally, a house or abode where one makes a home. It is the root for some very significant words: ecumenism, ecology, and economy. Used in a biblical sense, the “economic” sense of oîkos is most often translated as stewardship—one who manages a household, a steward unto whom much responsibility is entrusted.

So the name of my musical endeavor is, at its very core, an affirmation that the music we create is no mindless, frivolous thing, but a responsibility entrusted by our Muse. The very act of engaging in the creative enterprise of spontaneous composition is not for the faint of heart. It is an act of faith—faith that the music is grounded and supported by the ensemble and has something of value to offer to the listener and, might I add, to God. It is an act of stewardship—nurturing a creative impulse, making oneself completely open to the moment to share a creative vision, which is a deeply spiritual undertaking.

So economics has everything to do with music, a realization that what we play is a gift, an offering of stewardship to the Creator.

 I had heard that Alan Greenspan started off as a music major and played tenor saxophone when he was young, and has picked up his horn again and is jamming in southern Vermont. I doubt whether our paths will cross again, but if so I’d very much like to ask his economic advice regarding the “economy” of improvisation—sharing the gift of our musical blessings.

Wild blessings,

Cliff