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Jazz Noel: A Child is Born

This is the seventh annual jazz nativity performance in St. Louis with the Oikos Ensemble. It’s one of my most favorite playing opportunities of the year. Christmas is such a magical time and seasonal carols lend themselves to cool jazz interpretation. It’s always a treat to see audiences experiencing the Christmas story through jazz and the arts. Re-imagining the Christmas message has taken many different forms through the years and the jazz nativity stage has featured actors, dancers, poets and visual artists.

Performing with me will be my friends Kim Fuller (vocalist), Tim Osiek (trumpet), Carolbeth True (piano), Glen Smith (bass) and Dave True (drums). This year’s guest artist is photographer Phil Shoulberg. His vibrant images will accompany our jazz carols and storytelling by the Logos Readers Theatre. Local choristers will also perform with the band. As always, the performance is free and open to all. A free-will offering will benefit Every Child’s Hope.

Join us for another year of great jazz, stellar art and inspirational storytelling.

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Jazz Nativity 2017

Can you believe it? It’s almost Christmas! Well, not exactly, but in church planning circles two months is a brief window to accomplish program planning. So, it’s past time to put the details in place for the 7th Annual Jazz Nativity, this year titled Jazz Noel: A Child is Born. Actually, the preliminary planning has been in place for months. Now it’s time to get specific. I’ve written the first draft of the script and my good friends Tim Osiek and Ray Landis will meet with me tomorrow to finalize the details for choral arrangements.

What’s different this year? We’ll have three choirs performing with Oîkos, a grand opportunity to write new arrangements of some of our favorite carols. Our guest artist will be Phil Shoulberg, one of the finest photographers I know. He and I will be meeting soon to create an interactive image palette for the production. The band once again features one of the great vocalists in St. Louis, Kim Fuller and our outstanding rhythm section, pianist Caolbeth True, bassist Glen Smith and drummer David True with Tim on trumpet and your truly on sax. The only difference this year is the absence of our other fine vocalist, Arianna Aerie who is spending a year in Oxford, Great Britain with her husband and daughter.

I hope you’ll join us on Sunday afternoon, December 17 at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Webster Groves, MO for another re-imagining of the Christmas birth narrative. As always, the performance is free and we’ll take an offering for a local mission project.

Is you’re considering planning your own jazz nativity, we have some great resources for you—four scripts of previous programs plus our volume of Christmas Carol jazz arrangements. The scripts ($12 each) can be purchased now for just 2 for $20. Use the coupon code JAZZNAV2 when checking out. Or purchase all 4 for $30 (use JAZZNAV4). The collection of 12 carols (C, Bb, Eb and bass clef arrangements) is still only $20. Order Here.

Let us know about your jazz nativity performance. How was it received? Was it performed in a concert setting or in worship? Will you perform another version next year?

Best wishes for a jazzy Christmas.

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The Tao of Jazz

My wife and I have been on a life-long spiritual quest for oneness with the Creator seeking guidance for living a lifestyle grounded in Truth, lived in Faith and shared with Integrity. For many years we have been exploring Taoism and how this ancient Chinese philosophy complements Christianity. We often begin each day together by reading from the Tao Te Ching or commentaries based on this amazing book. One compelling author/interpreter is Deng Ming-Dao. In his book 365 Tao he shares a word a day and unpacks its meaning and how it conceptually adds to the depth of personal wisdom and spiritual growth. His meditative thought process provides insight into The Way by which we can wend our way through life’s journey with authenticity.

This morning’s word is clarity. Den Ming-Dao begins with a question: “Can you see a sound . . . hear light . . . unite your senses . . . turn inward?” He continues, “True clarity is more than just being smart, more than just being wise. Clarity manifests from meditation. It comes when you can unite all the faculties of the mind and unify them into a magnificent light of perception.” My mind immediately raced to the meditation achieved through music, specifically jazz. There is a truth—a wisdom—inherit within music, and in jazz there’s an active evolving of spiritual questing that invites the musician (and the listener) into a deeper realm of reality. That’s why I’ll often refer to jazz as subversive. For me jazz is not a party music, even in all its exuberance. Rather jazz is a meditative discipline that explores and interprets deep truths. And those truths can often upset the applecart of simplistic, superficial understanding. Playing jazz is a process of self-development on every level, allowing me to plumb new depths of awareness. Listening to jazz illuminates new pathways that both challenge and enrich my journey through the craziness of our world.

Deng Ming-Dao concludes his entry on clarity: “If you unite sound with vision, then you will create light. That light is the concentrated force of the mind. It is by that brightness that truth is revealed.”

Jazz unites music and vision into a force for illuminating truth. It’s not just a one-time revelation, but an ongoing invitation for the performer and listener to embark on a subversive journey—a rebellious journey, seeking hidden truths that come to light in the brightness of Divine encounters, and then living in ways that affirm the wholeness and sacredness of God’s creation, and every living thing within it. There is a Yin and Yang to jazz, a creative tension that can propel one outward by going inward. By finding the center the boundaries are expanded. It’s in the exploration of the interior that the exterior gains meaning and purpose.

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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.