Saturday, August 8, 2015

Mass appeal: Chapter 4

We’re one week away from the first of two Guaraldi Jazz Mass celebrations, with pianist Jim Martinez busily rehearsing with the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir each week. Last-minute preparations are being handled, from significant matters of musical fine-tuning, to the completely mundane (as in, have you ever tried to find a place to park in San Francisco?).

Somehow, though, all the details and hiccups will be worked out, likely at the last possible second: one of the great enigmas of the performance world. To quote Geoffrey Rush’s marvelous summation, delivered so well in Shakespeare in Love: “Allow me to explain about the theater business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Strangely enough, it all turns out well ... [but] I don’t know how. It’s a mystery.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, the Rev. Bill Carter and his colleagues at the First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, are preparing for their similar tribute to Guaraldi, with an authentic church service setting of the Mass, to take place starting at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, September 6. Bill has labored intently for the past several months, working up Guaraldi’s jazz-inflected portions of the service by transcribing the few existing snippets of recordings. (Remember, Vince never wrote any of this music down.)

Bill has scored his transcriptions for jazz quartet (he’ll be on piano), two cantors (who will handle the trickier chants) and a small subset of his church’s choir.

He has generously shared details of his efforts in several earlier installments of this blog, and I’ll let him continue in that vein. Take it away, Bill!


When Father Charles Gompertz asked Vince Guaraldi to create a jazz setting of the mass, he recommended the Missa Marialis, a chant-based setting well known to the Episcopalians of the era. That posed a problem for me as a Presbyterian. I had no idea what this was, and the internet didn’t supply the usual immediate help.

A breakthrough came from a neighboring church organist, who suggested that I pick up a copy of the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal. “Everything you need will be in there,” he promised. I found and purchased a copy on eBay. When it arrived a week later, I was filled with Presbyterian confusion, while trying to locate the correct melodies and texts. After all, in a lot of churches, few allowances are made for visitors who fumble through the liturgy that the regulars know so well.

Sadly, the hymnal did not include everything I needed. Another internet search located a PDF score on a site run by the University of Michigan. These melodies looked a bit more familiar, rising and falling like the melodies that I had transcribed in pencil on manuscript paper ... but the rhythms were all wrong. Still, the written chant resembled what the vocalists sang on the Fantasy recording. With that as a guide, I set down the notes and rhythms of “Kyrie Eleison“ as best I could. It took forever, and I simply noted the repeating four measures.

Then I checked my work against a recording of another setting of the Guaraldi mass. Alas, I had botched it ... or so I thought. It was similar, but ... what was it? Could it be that Vince and his trio changed up the accompaniment? Indeed they did.  

Repeatedly, as it turns out.

So here’s my hunch: At some point, director Barry Minneah instructed the St. Paul’s Church choir, “Sing the chant as you always do. Full steam ahead! Don’t pay any attention to what Vince and the guys are playing underneath you.” Given the modal melody of the “Kyrie,” just about any note will land in the right place of Guaraldi’s accompaniment. That’s why my transcription could only approximate the melding of spacious chant and driving jazz waltz.  

It’s also why I had to redo it a few times, shifting notes and rests until I could get something close enough ... for liturgical jazz!

It took me forever to notate “Kyrie Eleison,” “Agnus Dei” and “Sanctus.” I asked Jim Martinez to try to write down the “Gloria,” and I’m not yet sure how that turned out. It’s tricky to get it on paper.

This blending of ancient and hip is the true brilliance of the Guaraldi mass. Two very different ensembles — liturgical choir and jazz trio — are in the same room, making music in parallel motion, agreeing on entrances, cues and conclusions. That explains why Vince needed to write down only enough musical information to remind him what to do each time. In the “Kyrie,” for instance, he repeats a four-measure pattern of D minor — F7 — B-flat — A7, as the chant in D minor floats over the top. With the “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei,” he and the rhythm section play over a Latin-tinged vamp between A-flat and E-flat 7, where every note in the melodies fits over the repetitious harmony.

When I played the original recording for Dr. Susan Kelly, our church’s director of music, she chuckled a few times. She heard a bit of anxiety among the singers at times, as if they weren’t entirely sure where the melody would land. She also reminded me that, as a classically trained soprano, she prefers to have everything nailed down. Ah, the dual issues of risk and trust!

Jazz musicians and choristers have had these conversations ever since Vince’s mass. Dave Brubeck once told me that he wrote down every single note of his 13 choral master works, because he wanted to be appreciated as a “legitimate musician.” At various points, he would insert an asterisk in the score with the words “optional improvisation.” This got him in a bit of hot water for his 1987 papal mass at Candlestick Park. One of the Catholic officials said, “Improvisation? Surely not at a papal mass!” ... and the jazz solos were nixed. As a Protestant pastor who plays jazz piano, I will reserve comment on that one.

Meanwhile, in our own setting, other decisions had to be made. Snippets of organ music are present in the Grace recording, where the cathedral organist played introductions or gave cue notes. I cut all of those; our Presbybop Quartet has played so many worship services that we’re capable of delivering cue notes or introducing a hymn. Hearing the organ’s “underscore” is a reminder of how revolutionary it was, for jazz to be considered for the liturgy in 1965. Was the organist also a bit anxious, even territorial?

Any jazz in church should draw on the indigenous culture of the congregation and its setting. In 1965, an Episcopal cathedral had a priest who intoned, “The Lord be with you.” As a Presbyterian , I don’t intone much at all. Since some of the liturgical verbiage was right out of the 1940 Hymnbook, I left it there; we won’t be using it in September. It isn’t our church’s custom to sing most of its worship words, and Vince didn’t touch those anyway.

I was taken by Vince’s treatment of the Nicene Creed, however, and we will attempt it. The congregation is invited to chant the creed on a single note — a G — and Vince accompanies with a swirling D minor 11 chord. At various points, he hits other chords that have a G in the “sweet spot”: a C major 7, an E-flat major 7, an A-flat major 7, and a D-flat major 7 with a sharped fifth. But wait ... Vince used precisely those chords for the first ending of his tune “Skating,” which he would reveal that upcoming December, on Charlie Brown’s frozen pond!

Imagine that.

In my next (and final!) installment, I’ll offer observations about Guaraldi’s original instrumental compositions for the mass: “In Remembrance of Me,” “Holy Communion Blues” and the noteworthy “Theme to Grace.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very informative! My wife and I will be trekking up from the Philly area to see this. I'm curious how the 'swirling' part of the Creed will sound on the 6th! Guaraldi conjured a nearly avant-garde, Alice Coltrane-like intensity with it on the album.