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I was offered something a shelf full of Coltrane discs cannot provide: an immediate, in the moment dialog
British author Jonathan Raban, in an essay first published in the Guardian of London and recently reprinted in the Seattle Weekly, writes: “When I first moved here, I cherished the fact that Seattle has one of the lowest churchgoing rates in the nation, and when it does go to church, it likes its religion to be on the cool and damp side—Lutheran, Catholic, or Episcopalian, for preference.” For purely selfish reasons I enjoyed reading “The War: Letter from Seattle,” Mr. Raban’s report on my hometown’s liberal, anti-war proclivities and acknowledgement of our “cool and damp side” with respect to organized religion. I am, in fact, more apt to commune with the music of John Coltrane then visit a local church. At least that’s what I used to think before attending a recent Seattle Jazz Vespers concert organized by the Seattle First Baptist Church. There, beneath SFBC’s towering gothic spire, I was offered something a shelf full of Coltrane discs cannot provide: an immediate, in the moment dialog – at once peaceful and pressing, captive and liberating – of live jazz. That dialog occurred March 31 at 6pm when SFBC’s pulpit was occupied by local vibraphonist Susan Pascal and her quartet featuring Randy Halberstadt (piano), Jeff Johnson (bass), and Mark Ivester (drums). The band performed in front of a large congregation, close to 200 people, but also an anxious one, gathered together on this first Sunday of the war. The musical program was chosen accordingly. Pascal’s quartet performed McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace,” Pat Metheny’s “Question and Answer” and Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Water from an Ancient Well.” In addition, the setlist included two from underrated, soul-jazz pianist Ray Bryant, whose compositions Ms. Pascal interpreted with an discerning ear for infectious melody and a natural feel for galloping rhythm.
The always lively Greta Matassa served as the quartet’s guest vocalist and proved a natural crowd-pleaser. Joining Ms. Pascal and company mid-way through both sets, Ms. Matassa emboldened a sullen congregation with her rendition of “Something to Live For” and “You Must Believe in Spring.”
The acoustics in SFBC’s massive sanctuary (first built in 1910, remodeled in 1956 and 1990) are exceptional and especially suited to Ms. Pascal’s vibraphone, allowing every bell-like note a full, resonant life before dissolving into the air. Such sonic luxuries were lost on neither audience nor musicians who, with Pascal and Matassa leading the way, gave inspired performances.
I am of the opinion that music is played to be heard, making musician-audience rapport directly proportional to the quality of a musical performance. On that evening, as televised bombs dropped in living rooms throughout the world, music desperately needed to be heard. Our local musicians humbly obliged, exchanged earnest smiles with the audience between songs, while Ms. Matassa’s humorous quips (“It’s been a long time since I’ve sung in a place this well lit. It’s like singing in my shower.”) triggered a ripple of rare, honest laughter.
At the conclusion of the first set, a collection plate for the band was passed, and minutes later SFBC’s Coordinating Pastor Dr. Stephen Jones addressed the jazz-friendly congregation. His brief sermon was titled “The Sun Shall Shine Again” – not surprising, considering Dr. Jones is new to the soggy Seattle area, having moved here from Detroit one year ago. He acknowledged the dark clouds hanging over our community and country: a slumping economy, government debt, traffic gridlock, decreased social services and a war he personally considers unnecessary. In specific reference to the fighting in Iraq, Dr. Jones noted that “since the U.S. is not considered to be liberators, but invaders, the world today appears bleak.”
Bleak, yes, but not hopeless, as evidenced by a church full of Seattleites seeking peace and salvation with their Lord in heaven or the music of McCoy Tyner, Ray Bryant and Pat Metheny.