Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mass appeal: Chapter 2

Continuing our updates regarding the approaching 50th anniversary Guaraldi Jazz Mass celebrations...

As mentioned in an earlier post, Pastor Bill Carter and his Presbybop band are mounting a re-creation of the entire Mass on September 6, accompanied by his First Presbyterian Church Choir in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.

At the same time, and perhaps not entirely by coincidence — the network of “jazz worship” musicians likely being fairly intimate — Northern California pianist Jim Martinez and his combo are readying a concert-style tribute to Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass on August 15, at no less than Grace Cathedral itself. Jim and his band will be joined by the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir, along with a few members of the original St. Paul’s Episcopal Church choir who — as children — sang with Guaraldi’s band back in 1965.

The special guest list involved with this San Francisco event has expanded to include Charles Gompertz. As a young reverend, back in the day, he “hired” Guaraldi to compose and perform the Grace Cathedral Mass, and was on hand throughout the ambitious project’s 18-month gestation. He and Guaraldi became close friends, and Rev. Gompertz will share his memories of that long-ago event, during a pre-concert introduction.

Additionally, Bill Carter will fly westward, also to be part of the August 15 event at Grace Cathedral. Jim tells me that he’ll turn the keyboard over to Bill for at least a couple of tunes, although that detail hasn’t yet been firmed up. Meanwhile, Jim just set up an ambitious rehearsal schedule for the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir, with (so far) six sessions taking place weekly throughout July and early August, followed by a dress rehearsal on August 13.

As befits amiable colleagues, Bill and Jim agreed to divide the necessary transcription chores, and both have been quite busy with that sizable task. Bill very kindly sent along a detailed description of how that is proceeding, so I’ll turn the rest of this post over to him:

Transcribing the Guaraldi Mass is trickier than one might think. According to all accounts, Vince never played the music the same way twice, which is confirmed by the few existing recordings of the Mass. So I’ve worked toward a consensus, to ascertain “the mind of Vince,” knowing in advance that I probably will adapt the music in the moment of performance, just like any other jazz musician.

The three hymns are taken directly from the Episcopalian Church’s 1940 red hymnal. Only the melody is printed in that text, which grants great freedom to the jazz combo. While the melodies are sung rather strictly in unison, the instrumentalists offer a new harmonic setting for each hymn. In this way, the traditional melodies are blended with the jazz, and the congregation participates in the music-making.

Vince added a melodic commentary over each hymn, offering a flurry of notes in the piano’s upper register. His experience of backing up vocalists is obvious, and adds both energy and interest.

The opening hymn, "Come with Us, O Blessed Jesus," is based on the chorale of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Only the first verse of John Henry Hopkins’ lyric is included in the hymnal, so everybody sings it. Back in the day, Vince improvised with his trio on the 32-bar form, and the congregation sang a reprise.

This may have been a first in recorded jazz history: a recording of a congregation sharing a tune with a jazz musician. Thelonious Monk did record “Abide with Me” and “Blessed Assurance,” but no congregation was in his studio! In the larger context of Christian hymnody, Vince is part of a venerable tradition. Good organists often have played interludes between hymn verses, sometimes improvising as they go ... although, alas, improvisation has largely become a lost art in the church.

Before the trio begins, the organist introduces the first hymn by playing it straight, right out of the hymnal. I chuckled at this, having survived a number of classically trained organists who were (to put it mildly) uncertain about the inclusion of jazz in the liturgy. When the trio enters with the choir, we immediately hear more energy and delight.

Vince takes the melody, written in the key of F major, and undergirds it with a G minor tonality. The opening note (A) is the ninth of the G minor chord, which is so Guaraldi! He loved the ninth of the chord as a melody note (which is the final melody note on “Christmas Time is Here”). He keeps the harmony static: a G minor for six measures, adjusting the major 7th, the 7th and the 6th, to keep it moving. Measures 17-24 are on a C pedal tone (a single bass note). The whole piece is approached as an A-A-B-A jazz tune.

“Come, Holy Ghost,” the second hymn, sounds like a processional, with its steady beat and repeating eight-measure melody. Vince again translates the major key melody — this time in C major — to G minor. As with the first hymn, he offers a harmonic counter line, raising the fifth of the chord (a D) to an augmented fifth, then to a sixth, and back down. This hymn has no solo, although Vince’s fleet-fingered piano fills add a chattering commentary.

I chose not to transcribe his improvisations. That’s a personal matter for most jazz musicians. A transcription of a solo is for the sake of learning and understanding a musician’s style, not for the sake of replication or re-creation. And I’m certain that when my band members play his arrangements, they’ll create new solos of their own. That’s the fun of playing jazz.

The jewel of the three hymns is Thomas Aquinas’ communion hymn, correctly titled as “Adoro Te Devote.” Vince has squared off the flowing chant, in the key of D major, into easily sung quarter notes. The harmony is gentle, moving from D major to E minor to D over a F-sharp bass, and then to a G minor chord — again, such a Vince sound! — before a rapid cycle of fifths returns to a D chord.

The middle of the tune shimmers in a suspended chord over an A in the bass, before returning to the initial sequence. It’s a very satisfying harmonic sequence, and perfectly balances the experience of receiving the bread and wine of holy communion. Vince put it together perfectly. No wonder it was chosen as the flip-side for the 45 single Fantasy Records released to highlight “Theme to Grace”!

The translation of the Aquinas text is stilted and stiff; during our September presentation, my congregation will replace the words with the fresh translation in the new Presbyterian hymnal, under the title, “Thee We Adore, O Hidden Savior, Thee.” Once again, a blend of faithfulness and creativity will push the music forward, which is the promise of jazz within the liturgy.

In upcoming articles, I’ll report on Vince’s adaptations of the liturgical chant, and his introduction of three original compositions for the Mass.


Work hard and practice well, gentlemen ... August and September will be upon us before you know it!

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