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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

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,” ( 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

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.

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Tools of the Trade

“A musician is only as good as his horn,” said my sax teacher way back in 1965. “It’s time you got a horn you can grow into. One that will give you great service for years to come.” My teacher, Jimmy Giacone, knew what he was talking about and. Even though I didn’t have much money as a college freshman, I agreed. A few weeks later at my music lesson he opened a case and presented me with a used Selmer Mark VI. “This is the horn for you,” he said. And it was. After playing it I couldn’t help but notice the difference between a professional horn and my student model. The tone was richer, deeper and fuller. There was also a remarkable difference in its response. The notes flowed easily from low Bb to high F#.

It was a joy to play, and it could be all mine for just $350. Just? That was more than my student horn cost new. Yes, I could scrape together the money but then my pockets would be empty. It was tempting to be practical, say I couldn’t afford sax-1it, and spend the money elsewhere. Luckily, I made one of the best decisions in my life. “Yes,” I said. Jimmy smiled and said, “It’s all yours and it will be with you for years to come.” More than forty years later, my Selmer Tenor Mark VI #65313 is still going strong. Well, sort of.

Through the years I’ve had the horn serviced a few times. In the early 1990’s, after a tumultuous trip to India, Pakistan and Turkey, my horn returned battered and dented, compliments of Pakistan International Airlines. I brought it to Emilio Lyons in Boston who did a masterful job in restoring it to superb playing condition, even though my limited budget wouldn’t allow for a complete overhaul. I’ve been playing it that way ever since. With a few adjustments here and there the horn has continued to play nicely—until the past couple of years.

Maybe it was just old age, time, usage and the bumps and bruises of travel catching up with it, but I found the horn increasingly difficult to play. So, I’ve been relying more and more on my soprano sax. With its fluid responsiveness and resonant sonority that fits my particular style, the soprano became my “go to” horn. But something was missing and I realized that my old friend was languishing in its case. I needed to take better care of it, but it was easy to procrastinate.sax-2

One of the great things about moving to St. Louis is Saxquest—a cool store with everything saxophone (clarinet and flute too). They even have a saxophone museum with original Adolphe Sax instruments. At Saxquest I met George Bunk, their master vintage sax repair artisan. He handled my horn with loving care, showed me the dented imperfections and what he could do to restore the body with new rods, pads and resonators. He said my Mark VI was one of the earliest models they made and it was an incredible instrument. I left my tenor in his talented hands. A few days passed and he invited me over to his workshop to see my horn “taken apart and cleaned up.” It was an eerie experience, yet really interested to see t the essence of my instrument.

Ten days later George called to say my tenor was ready—and like new. I rushed over and played the horn. He was absolutely right! I couldn’t believe how efsax-3fortlessly it played with the sound filling the room. Low Bb came out sweet as honey, even played with a soft sub-tone. Up and down the horn the notes flowed easily. What a delight! I gave George a big hug and we chatted for a while about our careers and the joy of playing sax.

So, to George Bunk and Saxquest, a big thank you for restoring my horn to its original self. And to my sax mentor Jimmy Giacone, now in his eighties and still growing strong. He was right, of course. You’re only as good as your horn. I have a lot to live up to.

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Volume 5: Ready for Download

jh-v5-graphicTim and I have been having loads of fun crafting jazz arrangements of public domain hymns. Many of our arrangements have been played in worship while others are creative imaginings that we hope you’ll try out with your own congregations. Now, we are pleased to introduce—Volume 5: Sacramental Hymns for Baptism and Communion is now ready for download.

Our previous four volumes include: Well-known hymns for use any time during the Church Year; Popular Advent hymns and Christmas Carols; Hymns for Palm/Passion Sunday, Holy Week and Easter Sunday/Season; Pentecost and hymns of the Spirit. This newest volume includes the following hymn tunes:

Beach SpringAs We Gather at Your Table

BoylstonA Hymn of Joy We Sing

Bread of LifeBreak Thou the Bread of Life; Here at Thy Table, Lord

Hesperus/QuebecJesus, the Joy of Loving Hearts

Let Us Break Bread

O Waly, WalyI Come to Be Baptized Today; An Upper Room Did Our Lord Prepare

PentecostWonder of Wonders, Here Revealed

PicardyLet All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

StuttgartChild of Blessing, Child of Promise

Wade in the Water

Welcome TableI’m Gonna Eat at the Welcome Table

Winchester NewWe Place Upon Your Table, Lord

 Each hymn is created for C instruments and transposed into Bb, Eb and bass clef. Most of our hymns also have a second harmonic line, so it’s easy to have a sax and trumpet (or other instrumentation) front line. You’ll also find helpful performance hints for each arrangement, and a cross reference of other hymns using the same melody.

We hope you’ll want to purchase a volume, or two (or three), and then let us know how they were received in your congregation. As my friend, Rev. Geoffrey Black (former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ) says frequently, “Jazz is the best music for the twenty-first century church.” I’ll pick up on his idea in my next blog posting.

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Jazz is a Verb

imagesIf it’s anything, jazz is a verb. It’s more like a process than it is a thing. —Pat Metheny

I love the music of Pat Metheny and have followed his career through the years, purchasing quite a few of his CDs along the way. I’ve never heard him perform in person—until last night! Pat is a Missouri born lad and the sold-out crowd at the Sheldon Arts Center here in St. Louis welcomed him enthusiastically.

Pat came out on stage alone and performed on his 42-string Pikasso guitar. His individual artistry was incredible—a word I used constantly throughout the night. Then his group joined him and didn’t stop playing for the next 2 ½ hours. It was an incredible evening. His group consists of Antono Sanchez (his drummer for the past ten tears), bassist Linda Oh and pianist Gwilym Simcock. Antonio, you probably know, was the composer of and drummer for, the film score for “Birdman” which awarded an Oscar for Best Picture. Linda is from Malaysia/Australia and Gwilym from the UK. It was an international, all-star quartet, with each musician given plenty of space to solo and share their artistry.

The band played a full hour before a single word was spoken, seguing from one number to the next after a round of appreciative applause. Pat began every song and it soon became evident that the band was eager and ready to jump in, even though they weren’t sure what he was going to play next. They were tight yet spontaneous, passionate in their intensity, yet constantly connected with us the audience. The smile on Pat’s face was evident throughout the evening.

Last night’s concert was one of the most creative and inspiring performances that I’ve ever attended—a blending of old and new music that typified Pat’s quote that jazz is a verb, not a noun. It’s not a thing, rather a process, a free-flowing, ever-evolving encounter with the spirit of the musicians, and I would add: an encounter with the Spirit. No, this was not presented with any religious or spiritual intent (at least to my knowledge). And yet, if you believe as I do that jazz can be a deeply sacred experience, then Pat’s quartet constantly lifted us to new heights, filling the audience with an exuberance and joy that resonated in the soul.

Jazz, as a verb, moves the musicians through the creative terrain of invention, inspiring each other and catapulting the audience to a new level of experiencing their own inner landscape. Exactly what happens when jazz is the music for worship. So, I suppose I did a lot of worshipping last night. No liturgy, but plenty of Spirit.

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Jazz for the Journey: National Symposium on Jazz and the Church

jj2-logo-2BIG NEWS! The second edition of Jazz for the Journey—a national jazz symposium about jazz in the church is scheduled for later this fall. The previous gathering was held in Cleveland three years ago with about fifty people from around the country in attendance. It was a great three days exploring jazz possibilities in the worship and ministry of the church—filled with keynotes, performances, workshops, creative connections and a concert featuring many of the event participants.

This follow up symposium promises to be even greater. We’ve expanded the schedule to include creative interpretations by storyteller Valerie Tutson and jazz vocalist Amanda Powell. Geoffrey Black, former UCC General Minister and President is both the keynote speaker and co-producer of the event. We’ll also emphasize the many jazz ministries that have burst upon the scene in recent years by allowing a time for sharing and interaction. The music of the Oîkos Ensemble (vocalists Kim Fuller and Arianna Aerie, trumpeter Tim Osiek, pianist Carolbeth True, bassist Glenn Smith, drummer Kevin Gianino, and yours truly on sax) will be the house band. Once again, we’ll expand the band to include conference attendees in an evening concert open to the public.

Our workshops will include:

  1. Developing Repertoire for Jazz Worship—Tim Osiek
  2. The Art of Choreographing Jazz Worship—Cliff Aerie
  3. Singing the Truth of the Gospel—Branice McKenzie
  4. Improvisation: the Language of the Soul—Chris Bakriges
  5. Arranging Hymns for Jazz Worship—John Dorhauer, Jr.
  6. The Hip Hop in Jazz—Geoffrey Black and Ben Sanders

For more information and to register please visit Hope to see you in St. Louis in November.

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Jazz: An International Language

I just returned from ¡MissionWorks! in Indianapolis. It’s a gathering of international church leaders, missionaries, pastors and church members to celebrate and learn more about mission. The event, sponsored by Global Ministries (Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ) is always a special time. Oîkos has performed several times in the past but it’s been a few years since our last performance.

MW PhotoI brought together Oîkos musicians from Cleveland (vocalist Angela Lynard, bassist Glenn Holmes, drummer Rick Exton) and St. Louis (vocalist Arianna Aerie, pianist Carolbeth True and me). It’s always a treat getting good musicians together, but in this case it was an all-star group of special friends who have performed with me throughout the years. And as always, they rocked! Or should I say, jazzed!

In worship we were asked to lead people in singing songs from South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Spain, Syria, and Palestine. Our concerts featured original compositions and jazz standards that correlated to stories and themes from around the world. The response from the participants was enthusiastic and joyous.

If it’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout the years it’s simply this: jazz is an international language of the soul. Whatever the cultural context, jazz speaks to people. Jazz is a uniquely American music but it connects seamlessly with other global music idioms—especially in worship. Whether from the African continent, India, China, South America or the Middle East, the indigenous music of the region has a unique relationship with jazz affirming mutual modalities and rhythms. In many ways it’s improvisation that links divergent music together providing musicians from any cultural setting the freedom to express their deep spirituality through their creative explorations.

Jazz has the artistry, universality and power to bridge the gap between cultures. It’s a musical sensibility that allows the Spirit to flow freely whatever our religious belief. When musicians connect beyond their borders, barriers are broken and we come to see more clearly that we are all part of one global village.

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The Power of Improvisation

Parkway UCC 27 copyLast week was a tough week in our country. On Tuesday Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot by a white police officer in Baton Rouge. On Wednesday in St. Paul, Philando Castille was also shot and killed. The next day, five police officers in Dallas were killed by an enraged (deranged?) sniper. Only a month ago 49 people were skilled in a gay club in Orlando. Add to that the recent terrorist attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq and it’s easy to be overcome with grief, despair and anger. What are we, God’s children, doing to each other?

Yesterday I led worship and preached at First Congregational Church, Webster Groves while the pastor is on vacation. I had sent my worship information to the church administrator the prior week—before any of the events of this past week took place. So, just as other pastors around the country found themselves forced to alter their preaching plans and face the events of this past week to try to make sense of these terrible events, I too found myself needing to address the issues of racism, hatred, violence and a national mood of shock, confusion and despair.

In the Divine synchronicity of the Spirit, the lectionary gospel text for yesterday was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Even before the horrific events of this past week, the text seemed appropriate for our time. So, in creating the liturgy, I wanted to challenge worshippers to look at the parable in a new way. And that’s where the improvisational power of jazz comes in. In my last blog entry I shared thoughts about the art of improvisation—the calling of the Muse that inspires the artist. But improvisation also has power. Jazz was birthed from the shackles of slavery and grew as an oppressed people traveled the perilous road of emancipation. For more than a century, jazz has been a prophetic cultural voice expressing both the deep anguish and joyful delight of the human spirit. It was an important musical voice during the Civil Rights era and continues to be a prophetic voice in the struggle today for human rights and justice advocacy. At the heart of jazz is storytelling—stories of truth—stories that can sometimes be heard more clearly through music than mere words alone.

Yesterday’s worship leadership was primarily a duet—me and my sax. I retold the parable using more contemporary language punctuated by improvisational reflection that centered the story in a brief musical theme and then meandered through the storytelling, highlighting the anguish of the man beset by robbers, his diminishing heartbeat, the stroll of avoidance by priest and Levite, the healing blues of the Good Samaritan, concluding with Keith Jarrett’s “Prayer.” This segued into my sermon.

A word about my preaching. I decided quite some time ago that I had “preached” my last sermon. Since then I have told stories exclusively, perhaps with a brief intro and thoughtful conclusion, but I never consider myself a preacher. Rather a storyteller offering parables. The challenge is to find the right story for the moment, tell it as if I’m improvising on my horn, and let it stand by itself. The story I told yesterday was an encounter with a hunchbacked beggar on a train station platform in India and how three teenage musicians (Muslim, atheist and Jewish/Buddhist) demonstrated what it means to be a Good Samaritan—to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Divine synchronicity was my blessing yesterday. I did not have to radically alter the content of worship to fit the events of the world. The power of improvisation, story, plus other jazz elements in our worship, spoke to the need for love rather than fear, compassion instead of hatred.

Charlie Parker once said, “I am a devout musician.” It’s all in the spirit we bring to the music . . . and the Spirit we discover in the music.

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The Art of Improvisation

Earthwalk for 5-16--4I’m still thinking back on our Earth Walk concert. My good friend, and audio engineer Andrew Kremer, recorded the concert and recently sent me the files. It’s been great listening to the music and reliving the stories and commentary that went with it. One thing you can’t hear on the recording is the painting of Michael Anderson. The attached photo shows him in the process of his artistic creation. What I did hear on Andrew’s recording was the conversation Michael and I had during the concert as the audience observed his artistic process.

I asked Mike how he knew what to paint on his canvas. After all, he had no visual reference, just the music, words and dance as the concert progressed. Here’s how Michael replied: “Actually, I’m like a jazz musician creating from my imagination. Imagination is the key. Even when I’m painting outdoors I have to imagine what I’m putting on the canvas. It’s all a matter of what you have in your mind and how it comes out through your hand and brush. Then the ‘laws’ of painting take over. Who knows where you go from there.”

It was as if Mike was a part of the band. As we played the notes, he brushed the canvas. Swaying back and forth, he caught the rhythm, absorbed the melody and used our improvisation as a catalyst for his imaginative improvisation. Since the music, dance and stories focused on Mother Earth, his painting captured the colors of creation in the context of creating.

As we neared the end of our concert Mike was putting the finishing touches on his work. He told the audience that he had been studying the ancient Chinese masters and how improvisation was at the heart of their painting and calligraphy. Painting during the concert he felt “inspired to lift up the Spirit of bamboo, plum blossom, birds, fish and the sky.”

And that’s what improvisation is all about. Whether it’s jazz, painting, or any art form, the artist listens to the wellspring of imaginative spirit percolating from within. With that inspiration he or she can begin to create—something out of nothing. Which is, of course, the way God fashioned creation. No, I’m not suggesting that artists are gods, merely that we co-create with the Creator transforming our imagination into visible or auditory form. It takes practice, discipline and deep listening to bring imagination to life. That is the art of improvisation.

Earthwalk for 5-16-