The role of the church, or more specifically, Christianity, in American culture cannot be overestimated even by those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith. One place where art and Christianity intersected long ago was in music. Since the Middle Ages, music has been used as a vehicle of worship (2000 years before this if the "Judeo-" part of the Judeo-Christian heritage is considered). It has manifested equally in the church and concert hall.
Jazz is no stranger to music with Christian themes. Most notable are Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts and the Catholic liturgical music of Mary Lou Williams. Roman Catholicism is evident in two of the three releases considered here. Pianist/composer Deanna Witkowski began 2009 with From This Place, a collection of spiritual and liturgy-influenced jazz pieces, while bassist/composer Ike Sturm's Jazzmass extends the common musical language of the church. Rounding out the trio is singer Jeff Baker's jazz view of the Protestant hymnal as if born in New Orleans.
From This Place
Deanna Witkowski steps out, front and center, into the jazz-spiritual arena. The pianist/singer/composer has fully integrated her own spiritual journey into Roman Catholicism within her music. From This Place presents Witkowski in a much different and, in some ways, more advanced place than her previous recordings, Having To Ask (Jazzline, 2000), Wide Open Window (Khaeon World Music, 2003) and Length Of Days (ArtistShare, 2005).
Witkowski displays a wide breadth of compositional talent in her blues-gospel "Let My Prayer Rise (Psalm 141)," the a capella "Never Before" and her setting of "Evening Mass." Her very personal "Take My Life And Let It Be" is breathtaking. Witkowski has a very fine voice that melds well with Laila Biali, Peter Eldridge and Kate McGarry. She also sports some great friends in the rhythm section and horns in bassist John Patitucci, drummer Scott Latzky and saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
Witkowski's pure musicality infuses this music with the joy and hope it deserves. Her approach is at once earthy and organic, yet refined, possessing the fan-blown essence of the church. Accomplished in all musical contexts she has attempted, she finds a comfortable home in this music of faith and praise. It is hard not to celebrate with her the wonder of it all. From This Place is the logical and inevitable place for the evolving spirit of Deanna Witkowski to come to.
Visit Deanna Witkowski on the web.
Where Deanna Witkowski's approach is informed and organic, bassist/composer Ike Sturm's is honed and polished. JazzMass is a carefully and thoughtfully composed Tridentine liturgy. Sturm's vision of the Catholic liturgy is one that swings with genius composing and soloing. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin (who is making a cottage industry of sacred jazz) solos robustly on the angular "Gloria," with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen turning in beautifully toned solo (this is the sound Chet Baker might have had had he cared). Strum's composing is complex and captivating, multi-layered and textured.
Misty Ann Sturm, a classically trained vocalist, provides a powerful lyricism to Sturm's compositions. Ike provides a solo bass interlude between "Gloria" and "Just As I Am," where he displays highly technical chops that are not so showy as to drown the melody underlying the piece. "Just As I Am" again features an intense tenor saxophone solo by McCaslin, who plays with a hard grace and dense intention. Pianist Adam Benjamin is hand-in-glove with both the Sturms.
"Offertory: Stillness" finds Ike playing electric over Misty Ann's vocalese. The integration of the band is near perfect, the ambiance light, the space cool and resonant. "Sanctus" is arranged in competing layers between voice, piano, and strings that modulate between a populated aural landscape and a spare solo field. McCaslin turns in one his best supporting performances on JazzMass. Sturm's traditional spiritual vision mixes well with his bold and exploratory compositional vein. This is an excellent recording whatever the inspiration.
Visit Ike Sturm on the web.
Of Things Not Seen
Vocalist Jeff Baker draws his inspiration and repertoire from the Protestant hymnal, casting old gospel and spiritual standbys in a thoroughly modern light. Backed by what could be considered the Origin Arts house band, Baker creates a Ninth Ward atmosphere in the wide-open Northwest. Pianist Bill Anschell (We Couldn't Agree More, Origin, 2009), bassist Jeff Johnson (Tall Stranger, Origin, 2008), and drummer John Bishop (Nothing If Not Something, Origin, 2006) make up Baker's rhythm section. Saxophonist Brent Jensen (One More Mile, Origin, 2007) and guitarist Dave Peterson (Portal, Origin, 2004))comprise the front section.
A jazzier than usual "Just A Closer Walk" opens the disc, smacking of Vieux Carre charm. Southern gospel spells large in Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," Baker's voice lean and bright. Jensen provides a spirited saxophone sole. "I'll Fly Away," that country-bluegrass staple, is given a breezy treatment. A restrained Baker sings, understated, the chorus over Johnson's fat bass. "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" swings with a solid momentum, a toe tapping pleasure propelled by Bishop's exuberant drumming. Baker scats with the best of them, shades of Louis Armstrong.
Baker wears his faith on his sleeve on this disc and in its liner notes. In today's fractious socio-political environment, that takes guts. Like Ike Sturm's JazzMass, Of Things Not Seen is a solid recording regardless of the muse.
Visit Jeff Baker on the web.
Tracks and Personnel
From This Place
Tracks: Let My Prayer Rise (Psalm 141); I Heard The Voice Of Jesus Say; From This Place; Evening Mass: Kyrie; Evening Mass: Gloria; Evening Mass: Sanctus; Evening Mass: Agnus Dei; O, The Deep, Deep Love; Christ The Light; Never Before; Make Your Wonders Known; Pass Me Not; Keep In Mind; Take My Life And Let It Be; Song of Simeon.
Personnel: Deanna Witkowski: piano, vocals; Donny McCaslin: soprano and tenor saxophones; John Patitucci: acoustic and electric basses; Scott Latzky: drums; Laila Biali: vocals (5, 7, 10, 13); Peter Eldridge: vocals (5, 7, 13); Kate McGarry: vocals (5, 7, 10, 13).
Tracks: Kyrie; Gloria; Interlude; Just As I am; Offertory: Stillness; Sanctus; Thanksgiving; Our Father; Agnus Dei; Shine.
Personnel: Ike Sturm: bass, composer; Loren Stillman: alto sax; Donny McCaslin: tenor sax; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet; Adam Benjamin: piano, electric piano; Ted Poor: drums; Ryan Ferreira: guitar; Misty Ann Sturm: vocals; string orchestra and choir.
Of Things Not Seen
Tracks: Just A Closer Walk; People Get Ready; I'll Fly Away; His Eye Is On The Sparrow; Be Thou My Vision; Come Thou Fount; Hallelujah Anyhow; Pass Me Not; Prayer; Full Of Grace; O Sweet Gaze.
Personnel: Jeff Baker: vocals; Bill Anschell: piano; Jeff Johnson: bass; John Bishop: drums; Brent Jensen: saxophone; Dave Peterson: guitar.