While black American gospel music has been a core ingredient in the jazz gumbo since slaves gathered to sing and dance in Congo Square, devotional music from other cultures has remained generally unheard. But as we know, with jazz no longer an exclusively American art form, things are changing, and musicians from all over are bringing their own socio-cultural traditions to the party, including their sacred music.
In retrospect, Jan Garbarek's '93 collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, Officium, was a milestone in this deepening internationalismand, sometime between registering the sleeve art of Duw A Wyr, a radical and radiantly beautiful album from the 24-year-old Welsh singer Lleuwen Steffan, and first playing the music, it's likely that Officium will flash through your mind. Both albums are built around liturgical vocal music, with saxophone improvisations eliding in and out of the voices.
These are, however, only surface similarities. Duw A Wyr is distinct from its predecessor in two crucial respects. It's warm music, which Steffan sings as though singing love songs, and it's music that was first sung by working people. Where Officium used canons and plainchants sung by the educated European elite in the fourteenth century and filtered them through a rarified Nordic mist, the source material for Duw A Wyr is richly melodic, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes in pain, sung into folk history by proto-socialist miners during the Welsh religious revival of 1904-05.
The miners had dirt under their fingernails, and their eyes fixed on a better world, andeven though you won't understand the actual words here unless you're a Welsh speakeryou can hear these things in the music. (The synergies with Congo Square are marked, but probably shouldn't be overstated. Bad though their lot was, the Welsh miners were infinitely more fortunate than the slaves of Louisiana.)
As a double bonus, Duw A Wyr has considerable in-the-tradition jazz contenta tradition that pianist Huw Warren (who also produces, wonderfully, with a masterful sense of space) and saxophonist Mark Lockheart have of course been adept in transforming since both played with Loose Tubes in the '80s. They delight as accompanists, and also on two purely instrumental duets, the slow burn to passion of "Maracesh" and more meditative "God Only Knows."
Steffan herself, blessed with a voice of archetypal Welsh beautysimultaneously heavenly and earthy, a true soul whammyis primarily a jazz singer, and she brings the slides, slurs and blue notes of her early formative influence Billie Holiday to the material, where they fit to perfection. Music born in the valleys, but bound for Zion.
Personnel: Lleuwen Steffan: voice; Huw Warren: piano, accordion, percussion; Mark Lockheart: saxophones, bass clarinet.