Monday, July 27, 2015

Mass appeal: Chapter 3

The rehearsal began promptly at 10:45 a.m.; choir director John McDaniel runs a very tight ship.

I spent an engaging 90 minutes Sunday morning at the Fair Oaks (California) Presbyterian Church, watching and listening as McDaniel and his singers worked through numerous selections on the program of the upcoming Guaraldi Jazz Mass Tribute Concert, taking place at 2 p.m. Saturday, August 15, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. The weekly rehearsals began July 5, and they’ll continue each Sunday morning through August 9, with a final dress rehearsal Thursday evening, August 13.

John McDaniel, standing on the riser, leads the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir in a
Guaraldi-inflected version of "Adore Devote (Humbly I Adore Thee)," while Jim Martinez
adds a swinging touch at the piano.
McDaniel’s all-adult choir is roughly 70 members strong, and their well-trained voices filled the large, classroom-style music room with a joyous sound. In a word, the group is terrific. After running through a couple of the jazzed-up hymns that Guaraldi arranged for his Mass, McDaniel surprised me — I was sitting quietly in the back of the room — by asking what I thought.

“Actually, it’s rather spooky,” I said, and his gaze adopted a puzzled expression, until I elaborated. “If I close my eyes, it’s like listening to the original LP recording. You all sound awesome.”

McDaniel smiled, clearly pleased. Gentle but undeniably happy laughter rippled through the crowd.

As the August 15 event is a concert, as opposed to a formal church service, McDaniel and pianist Jim Martinez are supplementing Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass elements with additional choral pieces. Thus, the Fair Oaks Presbyterian singers have been learning not only the Mass’ vocal selections — “Kyrie Eleison,” “Come with Us, O Blessed Jesus,” “Nicene Creed (I Believe),” “Adore Devote (Humbly I Adore Thee)” and the lovely background chant and “Hallelujahs” behind the primarily instrumental “Theme to Grace” — but also five other hymns: “Come to the Music,” “Praise God,” “Total Praise,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Worthy to Be Praised.”

Martinez and his band, meanwhile, have been working up the Mass’ instrumental compositions: “In Remembrance of Me,” “The Holy Communion Blues” and the aforementioned “Theme to Grace.” Given Jim’s fondness for Guaraldi’s music, I’m sure he’ll also include a few other familiar tunes.

It’s an ambitious program, particularly for the choir ... but McDaniel seems unfazed. He has faith in his choir, and it’s clearly well-deserved.

From left, Jim Martinez, John McDaniel and Joelene Rodriguez
McDaniel also has able assistance, first and foremost from Martinez, who has brought everything (and everybody) together for this anniversary concert. He and McDaniel are regular fixtures at Fair Oaks Presbyterian; Martinez is principle organist, playing at Sunday services and other events, while McDaniel is the Director of Music and Worship Arts.

They were joined Sunday by Joelene Rodriguez, one of Martinez’s longtime friends and associates. After introductory remarks, McDaniel divided the group in half, taking the tenors and basses into an adjacent room, to fine-tune their parts on several songs. Rodriguez remained in the music room, doing the same with the sopranos and altos. Martinez stayed with her, supplying alto and soprano starting notes each time Rodriguez stopped and then started the group over again; he also “filled in” the missing tenor and bass voices on the keyboard. (Effortlessly, I might add.)

I’ve directed small casts of singers in community theater stage productions, but never with large groups and music divided into four-part harmony. The general instructive principles may be similar, but the attention to detail is completely different. Choral singers must deliver clean, unison enunciation, particularly with so many voices in play. Both McDaniel and Rodriguez have excellent ears for little details which, if slightly amiss, can adversely affect the desired result to a surprisingly large degree. Consonants must be crisp and distinct, lest a given word devolve into a vowel-heavy muddle. Slides from one note to another, sometimes within a single extended syllable, must be smooth and uniform, to avoid an unwelcome “hiccup” transition.

McDaniel re-united everybody for the second half of rehearsal, at which point he focused on the more difficult sections of several songs. The singers were attentive and responsive; he never had to help them through a given passage more that three or four times, and then they delivered what he wanted to hear.

The Fair Oaks Presbyterian singers have been joined by three “celebrity guests” during these rehearsals: David Willat, Dennie Mehocich and Nancy Goodrich, all of whom were grade-school members of the St. Paul’s Church Choir that supported Guaraldi and his Trio during the debut of his Jazz Mass on May 21, 1965, also at Grace Cathedral. Goodrich lives in the Sacramento area, making her participation fairly easy; Willat and Mehocich, from (respectively) Santa Rosa and San Rafael, endure a much more ambitious drive each week.

They make this effort both because the event is historic, and because they love the music so much. Indeed, McDaniel paused during a previous rehearsal and, looking at Willat, said, “You know ... I’ve never seen anybody smile so broadly.”

“I just never expected,” Willat replied, still grinning, “to be singing this 50 years later.”

Joelene Rodriguez, far right, works with the alto and soprano singers while Jim Martinez
covers the absent tenor and bass parts on the piano.
McDaniel wrapped things up at 12:15 p.m., closing with some administrative details. Buses have been arranged, to transport the choir members from Fair Oaks Presbyterian to Grace Cathedral; departure will be early, to allow time for sound checks and warm-ups in the cathedral itself, prior to the actual performance. The acoustics and “space” will be entirely different than what the singers have grown accustomed to in their music room.

“Grace Cathedral has quite a lag time,” Mehocich told me, during our first interview several years ago. “If you say ‘hello,’ it takes about four seconds for the sound to get back to you. I remember being warned about that lag time, and being told not to listen to the echo!”

Bearing that in mind, McDaniel will want his singers wholly comfortable with the venue.

While McDaniel, Martinez, Rodriguez and the singers have been preparing the music, I’ve been busily assembling vintage materials for a lobby display: photographs, inter-office Grace Cathedral memos, correspondence, newspaper clippings and other ephemera from the Mass’ 1965 debut. Press releases have been sent to Northern California newspapers, radio and TV stations, and other media outlets; Grace Cathedral is large, and we’d like to fill it.

The Sacramento Bee has a story in the works, as do the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Nob Hill Gazette, the latter one of San Francisco’s weekly “neighborhood” newspapers. Sacramento’s Capital Public Radio has expressed interest in having Martinez in the studio for a chat during the public affairs show Insight, and he also has booked an interview Wednesday morning, August 12, at San Mateo’s jazz radio station, KCSM. Meanwhile, I have an interview this week with a journalist at the alt-news SF Weekly.

With more media attention to follow, we all hope.

Meanwhile, everything is coming into place quite nicely. With the concert now less than three weeks away, the mounting excitement has become palpable. History was made at Grace Cathedral, half a century ago; all concerned wish to honor that moment with just the right blend of reverence, worship and jazz-inflected high spirits.

With Martinez and McDaniel at the helm, I’m expecting great things.


The Possum said...

How wonderful that this is actually happening! I wish I could be there. "In Remembrance Of Me" is my #1 favorite track by Vince. I've been meaning to transcribe it for years . . .

Derrick Bang said...

Agreed; that's a lovely tune ... so soulful and poignant. Sorry we won't see you on August 15, but I'm sure you'll be present in spirit. :-)