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Celebrating A Jazz Mass at Disney Hall

Jazz is sometimes referred to as American classical music, African-American classical music or some similarly tortured formulation. Of course, jazz ‘is’none of these things; jazz is jazz, and that really ought to be good enough. The form is its own unique entity, positioned in a place somewhere between popular music and concert music that allows its practitioners ample freedom to draw from either or both traditions. The second program in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2004-2005 Jazz at Walt Disney Concert Hall series embraced this duality with a set of more-or-less straight jazz from a quartet led by vocalist (and Philharmonic Creative Chair for Jazz) Dianne Reeves and variously augmented by special guests Hubert Laws, Terence Blanchard & Paul McCandless, while the second half of the program marked the world premiere of Eduardo Gutierrez Del Barrio’s Misa Justa, joining these same stellar musicians with the Philharmonic orchestra, pianist Billy Childs, and a joint choir of the Paul Smith and Northridge Singers. William Henry Curry served as conductor.

Misa Juta (from the Latin, a "Just Mass") uses and expands upon the traditional Catholic liturgical mass to create a Jazz Mass. Gutierrez Del Barrio, whose father Ramon composed his own Mass in Argentina fifty years ago, brought in the poet Patsy Moore to compose lyrics celebrating the feminine in the Biblical tradition from Eve through Sarah, Ruth and others from the Old Testament through to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene; the justice is done to the Mass by restoring this female perspective that has in the composer and lyricist’s view been distorted by man and his institutions through the ages.

Reeves came out in a beautiful beige gown and accompanied by her band and from the first displayed a prodigious vocal technique. If some jazz singers can be said to sing conversationally, Ms. Reeves takes the opposite tack; she not only sang with near-perfect pitch and diction, but actually made stage announcements with that same voice and intensity. I really can’t say enough about how brilliantly she sang, how impeccable her delivery; I attend a lot of opera next door at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and seldom walk away as impressed as I did here-by which I only mean to praise Ms. Reeves and in no way to impugn the fine work of LA Opera. What I’m saying, she was that good.

The Mass, rather obviously, contains strong spiritual themes. The jazz combo set that preceded it featured a mix of songs celebrating both the sacred and the secular. The juxtaposition with the orchestral Mass was interesting, underscoring both the religiosity of the texts as well as the serious nature of the work by jazz composers such as Thelonious Monk & Duke Ellington.

Explicitly religious material in the first set included a highly stylized reading of Cat Stevens’ 1970’s hit "Morning Has Broken" that included some vocalese in-between the traditional verses (unless my memory is faulty) that I wouldn’t mind hearing again and an improvisational dialogue between Blanchard’s trumpet and a scatting Reeves that the band resolved around the riff that drives the first part of John Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme" and Pharaoh Sanders’ "The Creator Has A Master Plan."

If these pieces served to whet the crowd’s appetite for the metaphysical, the other half of the jazz combo set had the effect of narrowing the gap between the worlds of jazz and concert music by including such significant jazz compositions as Mongo Santamaria’s "Afro Blue," Ellington’s "In A Sentimental Mood" and Monk’s "Green Chimneys." And surely both Monk and Ellington rate not only at or near the very top of the list of great jazz composers but, as their inclusion in this program underscored, in any fair enumeration of the great musical minds of the past century. (Ellington’s legacy, it merits note, also includes several important compositions for jazz band and traditional orchestra)

These pieces, not coincidentally, provided Reeves, et alia, with excellent platforms for improvisation. Reeves proved her interpretive prowess with soulful renditions of the ballads by Ellington & Santamaria and demonstrated again her remarkable ability as a scat singer on the hard bop instrumental "Green Chimneys." Truly, it takes some kind of singer to even attempt that or most any number by Monk other than "’Round Midnight." Hubert Laws, masterful veteran of jazz bands and orchestras alike, joined her with some tasteful flute and piccolo on "Afro Blue," while McCandless’s soprano saxophone added additional commentary to "In A Sentimental Mood." Both men and trumpeter Blanchard joined the quartet on "Chimneys," and all seven musicians took a solo. Along with Reeves’, bassist Reuben Rogers’ improvisation here was particularly impressive, manipulating the composition’s Monkian peculiarities with admirable concision.

A brief intermission followed while the orchestra and choir took their seats. As the lights turned down, they were joined by the principal violinist, conductor, band, featured soloists, and Dianne Reeves now dressed in white. The five part Misa Justa began, the choir singing the traditional Latin Kyrie Elesion, praying for God’s Mercy. Verses linking Eve and all mothers are sung by Reeves while Rogers lays down a walking bass line and Childs and drummer Greg Hutchinson lightly swing. The theology of this section is interesting, the passage "Flesh of Woman’s flesh/Bone of Her bone/Drawn out not from the side of (sic) man/But from Thy grace" open to interpretation as either a piece of heresy nullifying a claim made in the first book of the Bible or, perhaps more generously, to mean truly flowing from Divine Grace and not merely in a physical sense from Adam’s ribs.

The Gloria section comes next, the supplemental poetry designed, according to the program notes, to represent Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth, "Women Who-Armed with Faith-Triumph over Seemingly Insurmountable Odds." This was one of the most effective passages of the piece, melding the Latin mass and jazz elements--when this movement was really swinging, members of the choir couldn’t help but moving along with it--with harmonies that would have seemed dissonant before at least the Classical period and punctuated by a blast from Disney Hall’s large pipe organ at the climactic moment.

The Credo (Symbolum Nicenum) enumerates the Creed of the Catholic Church, telling the story of Christ’s death and resurrection; Moore’s addition tells the story from the perspective of Mary and all mothers whose children have been lost to violence, concluding with the existential question "Can joy be restored in light of such things?" Sanctus juxtaposes the traditional prayer of brotherhood in the Lord with lyrics representing the sisterhood of women through the example of Ruth and Naomi.

The fifth and concluding movement pairs the prayer Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) with an amplification on the story of Mary Magdalene, perhaps the most controversial figure in the New Testament; the call in this setting is not merely for sinners-us all-to refrain from casting stones at her for her perceived transgressions, but to see her in much the way the Gnostics do, as "Christ’s humble servant/ ./ (T)he keeper of (sic) his gospel of true peace," and closing by proclaiming that it was "by her toil" that Christ’s Church-"The Church of unity, of love/And not the lesser laws of man/Which serve only to oppress and break apart/The peoples of the earth." A lot to consider there, accentuated musically by an oboe part indebted to Stravinsky and performed by McCandless.

The debut of Gutierrez Del Barrio and Moore’s (it seems out of keeping with the piece’s thrust to exclude her name here) Misa Justa proved a deft and intriguing fusion of the Catholic Mass, concert music, jazz and a theology seemingly influenced by Gnosticism. The set of more traditional jazz and spiritually oriented songs that preceded it helped illuminate the nature of the larger piece and vice versa. This performance was an impressive one from the Philharmonic, conductor Curry, and all the musicians involved in it. The successful debut of Misa Justa once again proved that there exists substantial common ground to be explored between jazz and traditional western art music.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • Concert Date: 1/29/2005
  • Subtitle: The LA Philharmonic debuts Eduardo Gutierrez Del Barrio's Misa Justa
  • Venue: Walt Disney Hall
  • City State Country: Los Angeles, CA
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