Title: The Abyssinian Mass
Artist: Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis (featuring Damien Sneed and Chorale Le Chateau)
Label: Blue Engine Records
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: March 18, 2016
Is jazz sacred or secular music? Some folks argue that the secular nature of jazz is undeniable, even positioning it as “the sound of modernity.” Others point to the music’s roots in the Black church as a sacred component of the art form.
To this belabored question, Wynton Marsalis has provided an answer, contemporary and clear: jazz is inseparable from the Black Christian experience. The trumpeter, bandleader, composer, and nine-time Grammy winner makes his point through his ambitious and well-funded project, The Abyssinian Mass. This two-CD, DVD package began as Marsalis was commissioned to write a piece in celebration of Abyssinian Baptist Church’s 200th anniversary. The church is an historic African American institution in Harlem, whose past proves Marsalis’ argument: Fats Waller’s father was a minister of the Baptist church and the funeral for the “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy, was held at Abyssinian.
Bringing together the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALC), Chorale Le Chateau, and Abyssinian’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, the work mixes gospel and jazz, big band and choir, while it leads listeners through a long-composed form inspired by the Black Baptist Church. Rev. Dr. Butts describes this deep, contemporary dialog between two pillars of Black traditions—jazz and the Black Church—as “a cosmopolitan approach to faith.”
While Marsalis has certainly reached cosmopolitan status through his career, he draws deeply upon his experience as a youngster in New Orleans, upbringing in the Black church, and knowledge of African American history to inform his compositions. In the project’s accompanying DVD, Marsalis narrates the music as it is performed, giving listeners a “director’s cut” version of the compositions. In the video below, Marsalis details his thought process for “Devotional,” the first song of the album’s spiritual experience.
In this context, Marsalis’ genius is on display: for him, music is not just notes and rhythms, but is a rich metaphorical wellspring, which he draws on readily and with a child-like enthusiasm, when composing and improvising.
At times, Marsalis has been accused of being a jazz traditionalist and museumifying the art form. But in the case of The Abyssinian Mass, Marsalis’ vision is a perfect theoretical fit. Many of the musicians he has selected for the JALC Orchestra have direct experience in the Black church and hail from areas of the Southern United States that serve to authenticate the project. The Chorale Le Chateau, led by Georgia-native and African American Damien Sneed, is comfortable in gospel and classical music, which complements the Orchestra’s musicality and professionalism. It is not a stretch for these musicians to find jazz in the church, and the church in jazz.
In practice, this professionalism denies the opportunity for musical magic, or the moments when musical risks reap unexpected benefits. Said another way: The Abyssinian Mass’ brilliance lies in its design, rather than its exacting performance.
On the other hand, the professionalism of the album’s packaging does not go unnoticed. In a time of where physical CD releases are staring hard at their demise, The Abyssinian Mass is a brave box-set: the release is beautifully-packaged, features provocative liner notes from Leon Weiseltier, and dazzling display of color photographs from the piece’s 2013 tour. Online, one can find videos of this tour, each spotlighting a different member of the JALC Orchestra or the Chorale Le Chateau and produced with a restrained flair.
The Abyssinian Mass is not a work to be digested quickly. It is a musical tome for a historic African American institution, led by one of the leading African American musicians of our time. In his effort to bring together profound strands of the Black experience, Marsalis has found fertile ground for musical inspiration, deep pockets to realize his vision, and incorporated his trademark stylistic approach. The results are worthy of blessings from the Patron Saint of cosmopolitans.
Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach