Friday, August 28, 2015

Mass appeal: Chapter 5

We’re approaching the final countdown on the second of this summer’s double-scoop celebration of Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass, with the second 50th anniversary event taking place Sunday morning, September 6, at the First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. The jazz elements will be handled by Rev. Bill Carter and his Presbybop combo; during the past several months, Bill quite generously has shared the lengthy listening/transcription process that has been necessary, to replicate the original experience as closely as possible.

In case you’ve missed previous installments, you’ll find them here, here, here and here.

Meanwhile, I’ll once again turn this blog over to Bill, for his final analysis of How Vince Did It ... and how his mass’ rich legacy even extended to other projects!


Reflections on transcribing the Guaraldi Mass: The Instrumental Music

I had a revelation when I heard the Guaraldi Mass tunes in a different sequence. While preparing a reference CD for my quartet, I put “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei” adjacent to one another, just as they’d be sequenced in an actual mass. I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that they’re in the same key, with the same tempo and rhythmic feel. They belong together.

Similarly, “In Remembrance of Me” and “Holy Communion Blues” begin in nearly identical fashion. A repeated C in the melody is accompanied by a descending line in the left hand, before each tune develops in a different manner.

Both tunes were part of a long interlude, as the mass participants received the sacrament of communion. Rev. Chuck Gompertz recalls it took 30 minutes for everyone to be served, so Vince did what scores of church musicians have always done: He filled the time. And why not? If you’ve invited a jazz trio into your cathedral to lead a worship service, it’s best to let them play.

Only about half of that music is included on Fantasy’s recording of the event. Chuck spent a lot of time with the recording engineers, carving up identifiable segments into “tunes,” and even providing titles on Vince’s behalf. Sadly, the rest of that music has been lost to us.

“In Remembrance of Me” is a spontaneous composition for piano, based loosely upon a descending sequence of C minor — B flat — A flat major 7 — G7. Vince meanders his way through it, proceeding slowly and offering an intuitive solo meditation. I wonder what was happening at the time. Were the communion servers moving to the altar rail? Was incense filling the sanctuary, as Vince put sweet notes into the air? We cannot tell. We do know, however, that creativity was swirling in Guaraldi’s head; a snippet of his future tune “Monterey” can be heard at 1:10 on the recording.

Liturgical snobs certainly would take issue with the title of “Holy Communion Blues,” but Rev. Gompertz aptly described the worship moment by titling it thusly. Vince sets up a gentle waltz with an introduction identical to that he would use a few months later on TV, for “Christmas Time Is Here.” He plays a 24-measure blues in F, beginning with a singable melody, spontaneously created. What began as a very lengthy piece has been edited, and Chuck faintly remembers a bass solo that never made it onto the recording.

The performance sparkles nonetheless, and we have one of the lengthiest Guaraldi improvisations on record. Vince has no lack of melodic and harmonic ideas. He re-harmonizes as he goes, revealing considerable skill and holding the listener’s interest. And the whole thing is so soulful ... exactly as a sacrament should be.

The priceless gem from the mass is Guaraldi's third original tune, “Theme to Grace.” While the prior two instrumentals are basically unstructured, “Theme” was arranged carefully. After a rubato statement of the tune, Vince sets the tempo with his left hand, and the choir enters to “oohhhhhh” the unison melody. It is the mass’ singular “Charlie Brown Christmas” moment, prefiguring the TV version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (with some of the same voices!).

“Theme to Grace,” titled by Gompertz as an olive branch extended to the cathedral that had been ambiguous (at best) in its support of the mass, is a sweet 32-measure composition. Vince solos with great beauty. The composition features the same descending minor chord progressions that he later used in “Christmas Time is Here” and “Christmas Is Coming.” The final note is the ninth of the F major chord, a favorite tone of the composer, and the essence of California cool. As the choir re-enters to sing “alleluia” over the melody, there’s no ambiguity about the composer’s intent. “Theme to Grace” is a masterful liturgical offering.

These days, jazz in a worship service is met with the extremes of resistance or indifference. What Guaraldi displays, however, is a theological subtlety, easily missed. The ineffable becomes tangible, just as Word takes flesh at the heart of Christian faith. Why, imagine a church that taps its feet while singing alleluia!

Sadly, many of my fellow Christians spend inordinate energy parsing the world into “sacred” and “secular,” as if God inhabits only a small slice of his creation. It reminds me of a Garrison Keillor comedy bit. A Lutheran church in Minnesota had a hard time settling on an organist. “For a while they had a guy named Gershwin, on his way from New York to L.A,” says Keillor. “Somehow he didn’t seem totally committed to Lutheranism. When he played the offertory, and the ushers came by with the baskets, sometimes people would forget. They would look up and say, ‘A Manhattan for me, not too sweet, a Gibson for my wife; keep the change.’ ”

But what if...

What if jazz could speak for the people, both in their pathos and their reach for transcendence? What if people of faith could use their God-given creativity for praise and inspiration?

Vince Guaraldi surely has shown us the way.

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