PM: As composed by David, the Psalms were the hymn book of Israel. Many are addressed to the chief musician, and many are songs dedicated to one personage or another. So, even in their many English translations, the Psalms are a naturally musical group of works, and lend themselves to musical setting. African-American spirituals grew out of the same dynamic, that of the suffering and even joy of an oppressed people finding voice in music. In fact the writers of many spirituals used what is known as Old Testament biblical personages as direct allegory for their own plight as those taken forcibly from their home. The spirituals remain viable today, both for their intrinsic melodic beauty as well as for their addressing of certain universal human conditionsthose of sadness as well as joy in the face of suffering. Traditional gospel hymns take their texts from more New Testament biblical themes, although they can retain some of the melodic flavor of the spirituals. Modern gospel music takes many of the same themes and uses update harmonies and rhythms. I like to play spirituals in a jazz context, because the large price of their birth calls for the kind of honest interpretation which is the hallmark of all good art. Also, the melodies are so beautiful as to encourage melodic improvisation of a higher sort. Those logical, beautifully simple diatonic melodies inspired many early white, American-born writers as well, most notably Stephen Foster. I hear his work echoed in the work of later melodicists such as Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Hoagy Carmichael. Those composers began to dress the melodies in rich harmonies, often to great effect.
AAJ: This past week found you running through your new suite for gospel choir and jazz quartet entitled "Sing a New Song." Without giving away too many secrets or surprises, could you please elaborate on what the audience will be hearing?
PM: The performance will be on Saturday, May 3 at 2:00 PM at the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Information is available through my website. As I said, the Psalms were originally set to music, so what I do is try to find passages which are inspirational as to the words and which lend themselves to music I can conceive. After I come up with a melody I set vocal harmonies, tempo and time feels, and put the whole together with the accompaniment of a jazz quartet, which then develops the themes in sections of improvisation. There is also a narration which bridges the various selections, each of which comes from verses of the Psalms. The result is a suite which runs roughly 45 minutes. This year, as in past years, the concert will also include a solo performance by the wonderful singer Yvette Glover. I'll play the piano and conduct. The quartet will be rounded out by some wonderfully versatile musicians, Steve Slagle, saxophones and flute, Pat O'Leary, bass, and Dwayne "Cook" Broadnax at the drums. I've been doing this for a few years now, and the title of this year's suite, "Sing a New Song," is drawn from Psalms 96 and 98. It's great fun for me to find a way to join together two of the musical disciplines in which I work, between which there isn't really much of a boundary anyway. Much of what made jazz an enduring art form came from church music in the first place, so I don't see this as much of a stretch.
AAJ: Do you have plans to adapt or use any other Biblical texts as musical springboards? If so, which are you considering and why?
PM: As mentioned earlier, the suites I write are from the Psalms. I've also been working on something based on parts of the book of Isaiah (that's the book from which Handel took his text for "The Messiah"), and we'll see what else happens. For my trio performances and recordings I'll continue to set spirituals and hymns in a jazz context, and I always enjoy playing some of the choral things in the smaller, more intimate trio manner.
AAJ: What musicians would you most like to work with that you have never worked with before? Why?
PM: That's a difficult question. I've already been blessed to play with many great masters whose music I first got to know on recordings with piano idols of mine. For example, I played for several years with Vernel Fournier, whom I of course heard with the magnificent trio of Ahmad Jamal; I recently had the opportunity to play with Chuck Israels whose recordings with Bill Evans continue to inspire me; I got to play with Larry Gales once at the great piano room, Bradley's, having heard him with Monk, and I played once, also at Bradley's, with Billy Higgins, whose work with many great pianists, including Chris Anderson and Cedar Walton, was always uplifting. And these days I play with Leroy Williams, who played with Monk and has for years played with Barry Harris. It has been a thrill to play with these great musicians along with scores of others whom I have admired. And the beautiful thing is that now, as a teacher, I'm meeting musicians every day who obviously will have much to say before they're through. I look forward to playing with them. I guess I repeat myself, but I really believe it's the message, not the messenger. All the musicians I've mentioned are wonderful vessels, purely and truthfully delivering the music. As such, I can only make myself available and await the momentand the phone call.