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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,


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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,


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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,


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You Are Your Instrument

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“Blow your life through your horn.” —Arturo Sandoval

We musicians have a special relationship with our instruments. Some of us have spent a lifetime searching for that one special horn, or mouthpiece, or set of strings that helps bring life to our music. Cuban jazz trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval expresses it perfectly. We need to put the breath of our spirit into our instrument if our music rings with authenticity. And, of course, we need a horn/instrument that resonates with our spirit. And when we find just the right “friend” our music soars to a higher level.

Recently, I was reviewing some of my old journals and I came across the following entry of a few years back – a perfect illustration of how important our instruments are for our creativity, and for some of us, our ministry. Here’s what happened . . .

It was a whirlwind weekend. Arianna (my daughter and vocalist of our group, Oîkos) and I arrived in Denver during a severe snowstorm. We drove to our hotel in a rental car that had non-functioning windshield wipers. Later that day we traveled back to the airport, to exchange the car for one safe to drive in the snow, then pick up our pianist, Chris, whose flight had been delayed due to the storm. The next day the fun began—a creativity playshop, three concerts and two worship services . . . all in three days. Fun, but tiring.

In the middle of it all Chris and I had a few free hours and went to the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music for a little practice. After exploring some new compositions I put my soprano sax in the case. As we went to leave the case popped open and my new sax crashed to the floor.

I’ve never had this happen before. I distinctly remember latching the case, but evidently not securely. The tumble to the hard floor had bent a rod and some keys—disaster! Staff at the school directed us to a music store a couple of miles away where the repair person, Matt, looked at the instrument carefully and said he could fix it but that he was already booked up for the day. I explained we had a series of gigs and had to leave for Fort Collins (70 miles away) in three hours. After some negotiation, “Well, maybe I could get it done,” became “give me a call in two hours.” And, indeed, Matt was true to his word—the horn was ready, and after some additional fine-tuning my sax and I were reunited.

The concert that evening at Plymouth United Church of Christ was a fundraiser for a local agency that works with homeless folks. Pastor Steve hosted an interfaith gathering of more than 200 folks—half of whom were teenagers getting ready to spend the night sleeping outside in cardboard boxes in sub-freezing temperatures to experience first-hand what it’s like to be without a roof overhead. Since Oîkos literally means “home” in Greek we were able to add depth to the meaning through music and storytelling. Every time I played my soprano I gave thanks to Matt for his willingness to go the extra mile to fix my horn . . . and thanks for Oîkos, my musical home, that provides an abode for creative exploration and an opportunity to make a difference in the world, if only in a small way.

Violinist Julie Lyonn Lieberman maintains that, “you are your instrument.” The Apostle Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” Think about it.

Wild blessings,

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The Mystery of Improvisation

“Improvisation, it is NY conf 01a mystery. You can write a book about it, but by the end no one still knows what it is. When I improvise and I’m in good form, I’m like somebody half sleeping. I even forget there are people in front of me. Great improvisers are like priests; they are thinking only of their god.”
—Stephane Grappelli


It’s a question I’ve been asked so frequently that I’ve lost track of the who, what, when and where of its many inquiries. It’s usually asked after a jazz worship service or concert. Someone comes up to me to express their appreciation for the music and the skill of the musicians performing. “How do you do that?” asks the questioner. How did you start out with a familiar song and then, each musician in turn, weave the melody, harmony and rhythm into “that?” The “that” referred to is—improvisation.

As the great jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli once said, “Improvisation, it is a mystery.” And, indeed it is. But like any mystery there is a back-story, a foundation, a source from which it springs. The mysteriously wonderful outpouring of a jazz musician is the culmination of hard work:

  • Years of learning scales, chords, modes, all of the harmonic fundamentals that create the essential framework of improvisatory music;
  • Through persistent practice—wood-shedding hour after hour to improve one’s technical craft to develop his/her musicianship;
  • Honing the ensemble nature of jazz by performing with other experienced and dedicated jazz musicians before appreciative audiences;
  • Listening to the voice of the Muse—the inner source of inspiration that moves the artist into the soulful depths of creativity.

The first three aspects are based on doing—the disciplined, focused attempt to master a craft. The scales and chords learned are solidified into second-nature by the tenacity of practice and then strengthening those skills within a supportive ensemble environment. It’s only after repeated attempts that one’s improvisatory creations begin to make sense. Even longer before the developing improviser begins to realize that there is a whole other dimension to what he/she is trying to create. The effort of doing leads to effortless being. The Greek’s called this inner spark the Muse, and believed that every artistic discipline had its own Muse that inspired greatness and genius.

Without going into a lengthy dissertation, let me just say that this creative inner voice of inspiration has deep resonance for those of us who are also people of faith. We in the Christian tradition might understand this best as the movement/call of the Spirit—the Divine source of possibility that inspires us on our creative journey. Grappelli embraces this when he states that great improvisers are like priests, and once in the flow of creative improvisational expression, they are so focused on bearing their soul that they are one with their god. As a Christian jazz musician, I call this an act of transcendent communion with the Holy—prayer!

I’ll share further thoughts in upcoming blogs, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Wild improvisatory blessings,