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July 8, 2013 / robinswood

Preaching alongside of Mike Janzen

In chapter 4 – “On Improvisation, part 1: ‘My Favorite Things'” – I introduced an image of jazz offered to me by the musician and recording artist Steve Bell:  jazz as the burning bush. The image came to Steve while listening to Mike Janzen launch out on an improvisational exploration of one of Steve’s songs, and I was delighted to be able to incorporate it as part of my own reflections on the nature of improvisation. I was doubly delighted to have the chance to demonstrate Steve’s image in the context of the sermon preached on June 30/13 at the annual Jazz Mass held at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto, at which the Mike Janzen Trio offered musical leadership.

Mike Janzen

Mike Janzen

  • To hear the audio of this portion of the sermon, simply click the arrow:

One of the most dazzling images of improvisational jazz as being liberated through constraint—as being an expression of “freedom for”—was offered to me by the Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell. Steve was working alongside Mike Janzen, proofreading scored arrangements of a set of his songs that Mike had prepared. I’ve asked Mike to settle in at the piano, and give you a sample of a fairly straightforward arrangement of one of Steve’s songs.

(Here Mike played an excerpt of the song, “Dark Night of the Soul”)

But you know, having spent hours at their task, the two of them were getting bit giddy, and out of nowhere Mike broke into a kind of “lounge lizard” version of the song, leaving Steve in stitches.

(A sample of a very overwrought version of “Dark Night” was played)

And then it happened. Bell writes of how Janzen’s demeanor suddenly changed, and instead of merely playing around with the song he was suddenly playing it… Differently. Deeply.

It was like a ball suddenly bounced in front of him and he was helpless but to chase it. I was mesmerized to hear my simple song flame out and become something almost entirely “other” but because I knew the song so intimately, no matter how “outside” the improvisation became, my ear never lost reference to the melody and structure Mike’s imagination was leaping off of.

 (And here, Mike offered a truly adventurous improvisational version of the song)

“And that’s when I suddenly saw it,” Steve writes,

[T]he burning bush of Moses in the Sinai desert; a desert vast, rugged and barren but for this curious sight. I could see the solitary Moses standing motionless, staggered completely by what he saw. I could see the glory of the blaze, ferociously surging skyward creating dizzying heat waves against the pale blue. Interior to the fire, obscured by flame but not lost to sight, was the bush itself with its sturdy centre stem, black branches like a menorah and green leaves fluttering furiously in the energy. It remained entirely intact and unconsumed yet absolutely on fire.

*     *     *     *     *

To access the full version of the sermon, simply click here.

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