New Christmas Musical Co-Directed By Legendary Saxophonist Todd Williams
While employed by Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist Todd Williams played jazz which symbolized and drew from church music: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue, "Oh, But on the Third Day" from Majesty of the Blues, the Ellington-inspired suite In This House, On This Morning, Marcus Robert's " The Truth Is Spoken Here," and others. While perched at the top of the jazz world and barely twenty years old, Todd Williams decided to forsake it all for full time ministry. Well, that’s how some paint it. The truth is, Williams remains as involved with music as ever, and the church connection is now more than symbolic.
Times Square Church is a massive congregation at the heart of New York City, attended by over 8,000 worshippers representing over 100 nationalities, from wide-ranging backgrounds. The members of the worship team represent the same sort of diversity. Todd Williams counts himself blessed to lead such a body in sacred song.
All Cry Glory is an original Christmas musical, but this ain’t your grandma’s contata. In terms of location, you could technically call it "off-Broadway" musical theatre. It's true the musicians and actors perform to the same high standards. As musical director, Williams wrote all the words and music except "Everything is Fine" (co-written with Royce Green) and "I Heard His Voice" (by Wes Carr and Peter Rodriguez.) Despite the unusual pairing of jazz prodigy to church drama, Williams’ soulful swing compositional style is well-suited.
The story follows Luke's Gospel account of Simeon, a devout 1st century A.D. Jewish man whom the Holy Spirit promised would not die until he saw the Messiah's arrival. His discovery of baby Jesus in the Temple was the greatest moment of his life. All Cry Glory portrays Simeon as a senior Rabbi, struggling to remind a zealous young Rabbi and other Temple staff of their primary purpose.
The curtain opens with a marching-style snare drum and various Hebrew elements. Around the five minute mark, Williams breaks out with some cool bop-infused lines. You don't hear this stuff in church very often!
"The Wonderlove of God" establishes a recurring musical motif. The non-syllabic chorus is a creative and effective compositional tool seldom heard in canonical works. This song appears a second time and features a contemplative solo, then builds to a rousing full choir finale.
"Hebrew Melody" is the musical highpoint, and the reason to buy this record, speaking from a jazz fan's point of view. Williams blows a masterful and surprisingly authentic Klezmer instrumental. On the other hand, "Oh Lord Our Lord" is the dramatic highpoint. This memorable chorus contains a universal message; music ministers everywhere could easily adapt it for use in a sing-along worship service. This version features another outstanding, albeit short saxophone solo.
Like the libretto of an opera, Williams' lyrics are crafted to carry the story along, but his messages and melodies often rise above all expectation. It wouldn't be surprising at all if this musical, or selections at least, found a home in evangelical churches everywhere.
Williams' best compositions are vamps which stress a driving syncopation, implying the blues tradition at the core of most great music. They build to emotional, but not overly sentimental climaxes, delivered by an ensemble with obvious unity. If these "church musicians" aren't seasoned professionals, you sure can't tell.
All Cry Glory is available in two forms, original soundtrack (songs only), or original cast recording (full length production). While it is by no means jazz, it is church music which swings. Williams' hardcore jazz background lends his worship songs a muscular momentum and efficient instrumentation.
Proceeds support Times Square Church's ministry to the poorest parts of the world. Williams himself has participated in outreach trips to Africa. In this way, Times Square Church affords him opportunities that Coltrane himself only dreamt of.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Todd Williams' native Saint Louis, Missouri.