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December 16, 2016 / Jamie Howison

A Jazz Piano Christmas 2016

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From left to right, Bill Charlap, Willie Pickens, Renee Rosnes and Bethany Pickens

One of my favourite moments as Christmas approaches is to see that NPR has posted the audio from the year’s Jazz Piano Christmas concert. It is an annual event held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and it just never fails to satisfy. This year’s concert took place on December 10, and featured twin piano sets by Willie Pickens and his daughter Bethany, and by husband and wife duo Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes. The twin piano approach added new textures to this year’s event, which really gets flying when all four musicians collaborate on their version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”!

I have to say, though, that the Pickens’ version of “O come, O come Emmanuel” is the one that will stay with me. I’m big on the season of Advent, and you just can’t do better than this lovely Advent carol.

To listen to the audio of the concert, just head for the NPR Jazz Piano Christmas post. Happy listening.

 

June 27, 2016 / Jamie Howison

A little jazz with St Paul

A sermon preached by Jamie Howison on June 26, 2016 at saint benedict’s table in Winnipeg. The text for the sermon was Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

mimi1I spent two evenings this past week, listening to some great live jazz music. On Tuesday evening Rob Burton and I went to see Kamasi Washington, the rising star in the world of jazz. With an incredibly good and inventive band, Washington is filling theatres across the continent, and getting the kind of enthusiastic reception generally reserved for rock stars. Then last night Larry Campbell and I went to see the Tia Fuller Quartet at the West End Cultural Centre. They certainly took a more conventional approach to jazz than does Kamasi Washington’s band, but there was still lots to soak in. The young drummer was actually playing his first gig in the quartet, and he pretty much grinned from ear to ear the whole time. I particularly loved watching the bass player Mimi Jones, who all but danced with her upright bass, as if playing with the whole of her body.

Jazz is improvisational music, in which the musicians are freed to explore and create on the spot and in the moment. And yet as the theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie has argued, even improvisational music is not without “constraints.” There are musical constraints—things like meter and harmonic sequence—but also what he calls “occasional restraints;” things like the physical space in which the music is performed, the way the improvising participants play off of each other on that particular night, even the response of the audience itself. Improvisational music, in other words, doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has a context, a dynamic, a “container” as it were. It is the reason that great jazz improvisers need first to really learn the standards, work hard at scales, have a command of chord structures. Great improvisational musicians don’t presume to have a license to do anything they please, even if it can sometimes sound like it to people who don’t “get” jazz music. There’s tons of creative freedom in this music, but at its best it is not freedom from all the rules, but rather freedom for the creation of music in the moment. When Mimi Jones was dancing with that upright bass at last night’s concert it had much to do with how freed up she was in the creativity of the moment, but it also had to do with how anchored she was within the “constraints” those four musicians were all actively acknowledging.

I think this is part of what Paul is working at here, in this section of his letter to the Galatian churches. He’s very big on freedom in this passage; in fact it is one of the recurring themes in the epistle as a whole. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” he proclaims. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” he continues a bit further into the passage, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Do you see what he’s done there? He’s begun by telling his readers that they have been set free, and so should not “submit again to a yoke of slavery,” but when he begins to work that out a bit more fully he tells them that at the heart of their freedom is a call “through love [to] become slaves to one another.” It is rather interesting that he uses slavery language, when a bit earlier in this same epistle he’d announced so clearly that in Christ there is no longer any distinction between slave and free; that on account of Jesus, the old dividing lines set so firmly in place by the dominant culture were null and void. Yet here he is, telling this graciously freed people to become slaves to one another, while in other letters he writes of being freed up to be a “slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:22) and a “slave of righteousness.” (Rom 6:18)

This is because Paul knows that true freedom is not the same thing as raw license. True freedom is not freedom from, but rather freedom for. It isn’t freedom from all imaginable standards and constraints; it is a freedom for something deeper and more true. That’s where he begins to work his contrasting lists of what he calls “the works of the flesh” and “fruit of the Spirit.” “Live by the Spirit,” Paul writes, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” It might be easy to hear those words, and imagine that Paul is drawing some firm line between body and spirit; that he is suspicious of the physical body, and so is calling his community to live a sort of pure, spiritual life. “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh,” he continues, and so we might think that he wants people to deny all things connected to the physical body for the sake of being more “spiritual.” The shorthand might be “body bad / spirit good”… so tame all of that base and nasty stuff connected to your bodies, and turn all of your energy and attention to the pure stuff of spirit and soul.

But there are some deep problems in hearing Paul in this way. For one thing, his world-view is far too Jewish to be dualistic in that “body bad / spirit good” kind of way. In the Jewish way of seeing things, to be human—to be alive—is to be embodied. Spirit and body are inescapably intertwined as one. There is no pure spirit trapped in a base body as most of the Gnostic sects taught, because the body is not a trap… it is very much constitutive of who and what we are.

But even more important is his use of the word “flesh,” rather than “body.” The Greek word translated as flesh is sarx, and in Paul’s hands it tends to be a value-laden word. The Greek word for body, on the other hand, is soma, which is the word used in the gospels when Jesus takes bread, blesses it and gives it to his friends saying “this is my body—my soma—broken for you.” It is soma that is used when Jesus’ dead body is laid in the ground, and it is soma Paul uses when he begins to write of the Christian community being the “body of Christ.” Soma is the straightforward word for the created, physical human form.

Sarx/flesh is different, particularly in the meaning-laden way in which Paul is using it here. Some biblical translations actually try to get a hold of this, by opting for alternatives to the word “flesh”. The New English Bible goes with “lower nature”, the New International “sinful nature,” and the Jerusalem Bible opts for “self-indulgence.” You see the shading, right?

As Paul is using this word sarx or flesh, he’s talking about the ways that we can get distorted, diminished, and destructive; both self-destructive and destructive of others. He’s got quite a list of “works of the flesh,” which opens with that loaded word “fornication” and concludes with “drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” It sort of sounds like he’s got the stereotypical weekend in Las Vegas in view, doesn’t it? And maybe there’s a sense in which he does… You know that famous marketing slogan, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”? I think Paul would counsel that you can’t bracket off some part of yourself or your experience like that, and expect it to “stay” there, because what we do with our bodies or to our bodies actually is done to ourselves… and to other bodies and selves as well.

At the same time, he’s not just listing off a series of prohibited behaviors that Christians should avoid. No, instead he’s saying that if these are the things that are characterizing your life, you’ve got a problem. It is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine; if the canary dies, it means the oxygen is running out and it is time to get out of the mine and back to the surface. If you’re finding your life is dominated by the things in his list—which include not only the stereotypical Las Vegas kinds of muck, but also things like “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy,” then it is time to get up and get out into the air that the Spirit wants you to breathe. And what is in that air? “[L]ove, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are what he calls the “fruits of the Spirit,” and he is clear: “There is no law against such things.” That’s freedom, you see, to break from raw license and to be constrained by a loving commitment to the welfare of others in the community.

I like to think that had St Paul come with Larry and me to that concert last night, and seen the great grin on the drummer’s face and watched as Mimi Jones danced with her bass, he’d have said, “that’s what I’m talking about.” There’s no sign of jealousy, anger, dissension or envy on that stage, just a whole lot of shared joy and generosity that is spilling out into the audience. That’s what I’m talking about, he might have said. Now go, and be free like that in your own lives.

Jamie Howison

 

December 13, 2015 / Jamie Howison

A Jazz Piano Christmas 2015

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Once again, NPR has provided a rich and filling banquet of piano music for the season. This year’s version of A Jazz Piano Christmas features two of my favourites – Kenny Barron and Fred Hersch – along with two newer faces I’m now coming to appreciate. Of those newer faces, one is particularly new… 12 year old Joey Alexander, whose debut album My Favorite Things has recently been nominated for two Grammy Awards. By comparison, that makes 33 year old Carmen Staaf a veteran!

For me the standouts are Carmen Staaf’s version of “The Coventry Carol”, Fred Hersch’s take on Joni Mitchell’s “River”, and Kenny Barron’s thrilling rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” But don’t take my word on it… take an hour, and listen to the full radio broadcast. After that, you can get even more listening in by taking in the various songs that were recorded but not included in the NPR broadcast. The streaming audio is being made available for free courtesy of NPR, and can be accessed by clicking here.

And because this is an annual concert held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., there’s an amazing back-catalogue of concerts available online. One of my personal favourites is the 2011 edition, which you can read more about elsewhere on this blog.

 

 

November 18, 2015 / Jamie Howison

Insight on “A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters”

Richard Brody’s piece in The New Yorker offers some keen insight on the newly released three-disc set, A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, and on the legacy of Coltrane as a whole. Take the time to read this piece… and if, like me, you already own the two-disc edition of A Love Supreme issued by Impulse! in 2002, feel some relief in knowing that you probably won’t need to shell out for this new edition!

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October 20, 2015 / Jamie Howison

Exploring the Blues

Lately I’ve been exploring the blues, which is not an entirely unexpected move for a jazz person to make. After all, blues music is one of the real taproots of jazz, which continues to shape and inform the jazz genre in so many ways.

Specifically my explorations have to do with the ways in which the blues tradition might help us to hear the biblical psalms in new and fresh ways. Though there are clear distinctions between the two, I am increasingly convinced that there are real ways in which they do connect. I’ve been reading, writing, listening, interviewing… and then reading and listening some more. Thanks to the generous hospitality of Brian Walsh and the CRC Campus Ministries/Empire Remixed, on November 2, 2015 I’ll be sharing some of those explorations at an event at Wycliffe College, Toronto. If you happen to be in the area, feel free to drop by. If not? Watch this site over the next month or so, for the audio of the lecture.

 

Howison's Blues

September 16, 2015 / Jamie Howison

Remembering Alabama

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In a article posted on AL.com, Mark Almond recalls the 1963  bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church; the event that inspired Coltrane’s extraordinary jazz lament, “Alabama.” I highly recommend you read article and then make time to watch this rare live version of the Coltrane piece.

 

December 18, 2014 / Jamie Howison

A Jazz Piano Christmas | the 2014 edition

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On of my favourite traditions of this season is to set aside time to listen to the most recent edition of NPR’s Jazz Piano Christmas. This year’s concert was held at Washington’s Kennedy Center on Wednesday December 17, and featured a great line-up: jazz-legend Harold Mabern, newcomer Kris Davis, and seasoned veterans Lynne Arriale and Cyrus Chestnut.

I’d highly recommend taking an hour out from one of these busy days to pour yourself something to sip on and then settle back to enjoy some fine, fine music for the season. To access the video of this year’s concert, simply click here.

And if you happen to find yourself wanting more, I’d also recommend the 2011 version, which featured Alfredo Rodriguez, Barry Harris, Eddie Palmieri, and Jason Moran. That one also includes an archival performance by Dr. Billy Taylor, who died in January of that year. To give it a listen, click here.