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Wynton Marsalis brings the ‘Abyssinian Mass’ tour to the Saenger

7th October 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

When Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra plus a 70-piece choir fill the stage of the newly renovated Saenger Theatre on Sunday, October 13, it should prove to be a magnificent sight – and sound.

Marsalis, the New Orleans born, internationally renowned trumpeter, multiple Grammy winner and the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, assembled this impressive group of musicians and vocalists, which is presently touring, to perform his ambitious work, “Abys­sinian Mass.” He composed the piece in 2008 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church. The epic suite, which Marsalis explains, follows the form of a Baptist church mass, has, at this writing, only been heard twice before in New York and London.

WYNTON MARSALIS Photo by Frank Stewart

WYNTON MARSALIS
Photo by Frank Stewart

“Everything is coming out of the same tradition,” says Marsalis of combining the jazz orchestra with a gospel choir. “Church has always been a part of the (jazz) music. Like in the beginning, (trumpeter)Buddy Bolden’s music had church music in it. So it’s not like a stretch to put jazz in the context of church music.”

Perhaps in New Orleans, we are more acutely aware of the close relationship that co-exists between jazz and hymns. Tunes like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and even “When the Saints Go Marching In” are regularly played by brass bands on the streets and by traditional jazz groups in the clubs. (The “Saints,” of course, gets particularly raucous at the Dome.) As Marsalis points out, however, those gospel artists and fans of other secular styles who’ve crossed the line into the more commercial idioms have often been severely criticized.

“It was separated because of the whole secular/sacred conundrum,” continues Marsalis who has successfully combined the genres previously on albums such as 1994’s In This House, On This Morning, 1997’s Blood on the Fields and 2002’s All Rise. As an example of the longtime conflict between purveyors of gospel music and not only jazz but blues, rock ‘n roll, soul and all secular music, Marsalis begins quoting the lyrics of composer W.C. Handy’s and lyricist J. Tim Byrman’s 1920 song, “Aunt Hagar’s Blues.” As it goes, a Deacon declares to his congregation: “…no wingin’, no ragtime singin’ tonight.” However church member Aunt Hagar doesn’t go along with that, saying, “If the devil brought it, the good Lord sent it right down to me.” (Incidentally, the funeral services for W.C. Handy were held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.)

As usual when Marsalis is working with his 15-piece orchestra, he’ll be blowing with the guys in the trumpet section that features notable Marcus Printup. Damien Sneed will conduct the orchestra and his Chorale Le Chateau, an outstanding group of singers from various churches and vocal ensembles.

“He’s a young cat — a bad conductor,” Marsalis praises, mentioning that Sneed memorized and learned to sing the entirety of his “Abyssinian Mass” so he could teach it to the choir. “That’s a lot of singing — there’s a lot of notes in it!” the composer exclaims.

When it comes to jazz, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, swing is the thing.

“That’s just what they want to do,” Marsalis says of the musicians in the band that include another remarkable New Orleanian, reedman Victor Goines. “They’ve been doing it a long time. They’re dedicated to it. The whole band, they’re for real. The band is virtuosic. You’re not going to hear a band like that and the choir is not going to let the band outdo them so it should be interesting. The big band is playing and we’re playing a lot so there’s a lot of jazz element in it. I like to put all kinds of the different music together. I don’t like just one kind of music.”

In keeping with the “celebratory spirit” of the suite, previous performances have begun with the choir entering the venue by coming down the aisles to the call of the trombones, a section of particularly praised musicians that include Vincent Gardner, Christ­opher Crenshaw and Elliot Mason. The piece then moves through the sections of the mass such as the devotional, offertory, responsive reading, sermon and recessional.

“It’s uplifting because it’s a lot of people who are dedicated to doing the same thing,” Marsalis says. “Whenever you’ve got a lot of people together and they’re working on the same thing there is a singularity of purpose.”

In composing and performing the “Abyssinian Mass,” Marsalis has had the opportunity to honor two musical genres — jazz and gospel — to which New Orleans has contributed greatly in their creation, expansion and continuation. After all, this city is the birthplace of jazz and the legendary trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong and the “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jack­son. Marsalis also mentions the importance of the late, great New Orleans choral director and arranger Moses Hogan. Recently, Marsalis relates, he heard the choir at the Abyssinian Baptist Choir do a piece arranged by Hogan. “He’s one of the cats who made me serious,” Marsalis declares of his onetime schoolmate.

“It always means a lot for me to play in New Orleans,” offers Marsalis, saying that “mommy and daddy and everybody you know are there.” He also remembers going to the Saenger for shows when he was growing up.

“I’m not going to write something I don’t believe,” Marsalis declares of composing ‘Abyssinian Mass.’ No reason to do it.”

“When you see the orchestra, you’ll say, ‘Damn they can play.’”

This article originally published in the October 7, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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