Sometimes Facebook gives us gifts. A few months ago a promo showed up on my Wall. Because of my love of Jazz and my admiration of Wynton Marsalis, a post with a link to a video for the soon to be released “The Abyssinian Mass” caught my attention. What I saw was amazing.
I went to Amazon and pre-ordered so I’d get it immediately on its release.
Marsalis has emerged as a trumpet virtuoso equally fluent in jazz and classical languages, know that the intertwined subjects of faith and religion long have coursed through his work. Even his first great suite, “The Majesty of the Blues” (1989), contained at its center a vast sermon.
“The Abyssinian Mass,” performed by the JALC Orchestra, the Chorale le Chateau and its vocal soloists. “It’s a piece that’s based on the form of the typical Baptist service in the Afro-American church, but it incorporates elements of the entire Christian church tradition,” Marsalis says in a bonus DVD featuring his commentary alongside video clips (the first two discs are CD recordings of the complete work, as performed Oct. 24-26, 2013 in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York).
Commissioned to mark the 200th anniversary of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the epic work begins with an exclamation point, the band’s big-swing exuberance, heady reed-section trills and slashing jazz chords reminding listeners that Marsalis knows how to get our attention.
Before long, the choir is humming insinuatingly, evoking the Holy Ghost in the Mass’ opening Devotional movement. Singer Jamal Moore reaches down into the depths of his magisterial bass to sing “I didn’t hear nobody prayin’,” as if calling all humanity together for the rites that are set to begin. In all, it’s a brilliant curtain-raiser hinting at the music yet to come, from the jazz-swing orations of the orchestra to the vocal incantations of the Chorale le Chateau and soloists.
On the 23 movements found on the two discs, “The Abyssinian Mass” thunders and sighs, its massively scored passages yielding to plaintive vocal solos, its full-throated choral sections giving way to introspective instrumental cadenzas. Though Damien Sneed is listed as conducting orchestra and chorus, in fact he’s presiding over uncounted combinations of voices and instruments, “The Abyssinian Mass” so fluid that it often changes tempo, direction and tone during the course of a single episode.
Therein lies the central message of “The Abyssinian Mass,” which seeks salvation through faith. If Butts’ sermon crystallizes the point in words, Marsalis’ “Pastoral Prayer” movement does so in music. This sprawling, multi-section piece overflows with ornate vocal solos, flurries from Marsalis’ trumpet , gospel-tinged orchestral interludes, fevered solo flights from alto saxophonist Sherman Irby and serene expressions from the chorus.
Elsewhere “The Abyssinian Mass” offers the soaring vocal passages of “The Lord’s Prayer,” hyper-virtuosic reed-section passagework in “Gloria Patri” and surging, redemptive choral climaxes in “Through Him I’ve Come to See.”
Longtime Marsalis listeners will recognize certain musical ideas that surface throughout his oeuvre. His love of portraying the clatter and rhythm of locomotives, in works such as “Big Train” (1999), re-emerges in the Recessional to “The Abyssinian Mass,” aptly titled “The Glory Train.” And the spirit of the “Holy Ghost” movement of “In This House” echoes in Marsalis’ and Marcus Printup’s trumpet cries answering Butts’ sermon.
Like the sanctified jazz expressions of Duke Ellington (the Sacred Concerts), John Coltrane (“A Love Supreme”) and Dave Brubeck (“The Gates of Justice”), among others, Marsalis’ “The Abyssinian Mass” stands as a monumental opus from a composer-performer with a great deal to say about subjects profoundly worth contemplating.
Thanks Facebook for the amazing gift!