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October 25, 2013 / robinswood

Wynton Marsalis goes back to church…


Earlier this week I was linked to an post on the NPR music site called Wynton Marsalis Goes Back To Church For ‘Abyssinian Mass’and I was immediately intrigued. In all honesty, I have to admit I’m a bit ambivalent about Wynton Marsalis. There’s no question that he’s a brilliant trumpet player, and I do really like some of his early recorded work – in particular Black Codes (From the Underground) and J Mood, both released in 1985. I’ve found myself less drawn to his sprawling major works – things like Citi Movement (1992) and the Pulitzer Prize winning three CD set Blood on the Fields – as they strike me as  just a bit too earnest, and without any real grit. And the fact that Marsalis has indicated that he sees  John Coltrane’s work after A Love Supreme as a waste of the man’s talent… well, I beg to differ.

This is not the first foray Marsalis has made into the music of the church. His 1993 double CD In This House, On This Morning was an attempt to express the shape and feel of an African-American worship service, though I’d have to say that to my ears much of it was too technical – almost academic – to really catch that worship ethos. It does, though, become pretty dynamic when Marsalis gets to the three-part “In the Sweet Embrace of Life”, which is intended to represent a black preacher’s sermon in all of its cadences and intensity.

In his article on the NPR music site, John Burnett writes that,

[The Abyssinian Mass] digs deeply into what Marsalis would call ‘the soil’ of the black church: its shouts, its dirges, its spirituals, its hymns of praise. With this work, he celebrates the seminal influence the church has had on the music of black Americans, and the continuing pull it exerts on his own artistic and spiritual life.

Marsalis used the joyful stylings of the African-American gospel tradition to deliver a musical message of universal humanity. He says he tried to put it all in there: God and Allah, exultation and the blues, Saturday night and Sunday morning.

That reference to the mass being “A musical message of universal humanity” is telling. Marsalis has not tended to make a whole lot of room for the faith of the church. For instance, his book, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, is notably lacking in any substantial reference to the spiritual and theological traditions of the church, though it does acknowledge the deep power of the church’s music. When Marsalis suggested to John Burnett that he’d “tried to put it all in their: God and Allah, exultation and the blues, Saturday night and Sunday morning,” one begins to wonder if the main message is a general celebration of the human spirit and experience, simply laid on top of a bed of gospel-informed music and following the liturgical flow of a eucharistic liturgy. One wonders, in other words, if Marsalis very much likes the church’s musical tradition, but remains somewhat indifferent to its faith.

Still, I’m intrigued by this Abyssinian Mass project, and until I’ve had the chance to really hear it in its entirety, I’ll give Wynton Marsalis the benefit of the doubt. And kudos to Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church for commissioning a jazz man to write new music to mark their 200th anniversary as a congregation.


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