This won’t be a typical album review. J.J. Wright is a GRAMMY Award winning pianist, composer, and conductor who is currently studying at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, but I don’t personally I know him. This musician I have never met sent me his new album, O Emmanuel, and it arrived in my inbox precisely on the morning of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Interestingly enough, I was to be ordained a priest for the Catholic Church on that very afternoon, so when I listened to the album that morning, it became a soundtrack not only for Our Lady but also for the nuptial binding of a man to the priesthood, which, for me at least, is a commitment made only by resting in the shadow of Our Lady’s mantle. This is all to say, I love Advent, I love Our Lady, and I love this album which has quickly come to means very much to me. I feel that I have seen a bit of the heart of the composer through his work and have met him in the midst of his art.
None of the above is possible, though, if the music isn’t beautiful. In this work, Wright has created something odd and original, entirely arresting but not overweening, exactly the sort of artistic endeavor that creates the response of love that I experienced. I hope you will have a similar reaction, which is why I agreed to write this review.
O Emmanuel opens with a take on the classic “The Angel Gabriel from heaven came,” that takes me right back to Lessons and Carols (I actually think this would make a fantastic set of songs for Lessons and Carols). It quickly becomes evident, though, that this isn’t a standard rehash of older tunes. Soon enough, the classic hymns and chant melodies encounter moments of sweet jazz, the type of jazz that I imagine has Charles Schultz in heaven giving a standing ovation. At times the alchemy is magic, it never intrudes with its own cleverness but at the same time is a fascinating mental exercise and comes together in ways that seem natural and intuitive but undoubtedly took lots of technical effort. The seams don’t show, and out of the creative mixture comes a uniquely new music for Advent. This is the music that Advent has been waiting for and didn’t even know it.
To hear more and find purchasing information, head over to Wright’s website. In the meantime, he was kind enough to answer a few questions:
Was there anything specific that gave you the idea for doing an Advent album?
This idea came from a conversation with Matthew Kelly and Steve Lawson at Dynamic Catholic. Dynamic Catholic is dedicated to creating world-class resources to re-energize the Catholic Church in America – a big part of their focus is meeting people where they’re at. During the Advent and Christmas seasons, I think many of us have an increased interest in our faith-lives. In addition, there is so little music that is specifically for Advent! We thought it would be a perfect time to try something new – sacred music to help people engage in a new way with these seasons of preparation and arrival.
How in the world did you hatch the plan of marrying jazz with plainchant? Did people think you were crazy?
I started out my professional career as a jazz pianist. My family and I were very involved with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in NYC – I helped with their music at both feast day liturgies and their monthly ‘Catholic Underground’. They helped get my first full time job as a church musician and from there I became fascinated by the tradition of sacred music. When we moved to the University of Notre Dame for my Masters in Sacred Music, I thought I was leaving my jazz career behind to become a “sacred musician.” Much to my surprise though, the faculty at ND encouraged me to find ways to apply my experience in jazz to create new sacred music. So in a sense (at least at first), I think I was the most skeptical!
I appreciate your use of children’s voices because we have lost the tradition of including them in our sacred music. Would you envision this as music that children’s choirs everywhere might eventually be able to sing? Are you interested in the promotion of children’s choirs in general?
I would be thrilled if this piece became a regular part of the sacred children’s choir repertoire!
One of my biggest priorities as a sacred music is to promote children’s choirs. You alluded to it in the question, but a large reason we have such an incredible tradition of sacred music is because children were deeply involved in the process, thereby ensuring its promotion and development for each successive generation. Right now, there is a severe lack of music education in the US, which gives us (the Church) a perfect opportunity to step in a fill a major need. The beauty of sacred music education for children is that it gives them the necessary skills, confidence and leadership experience to want to invest creatively in the Church throughout their lives.
This sounds like music composed from a place of sincere faith. Do you intend it to be, in a way, a meditative, spiritual experience? Are you hoping your listeners will find themselves somehow closer to Christmas and further along their faith journey through the beauty of the music?
Absolutely – music allows us to experience the beauty of faith in new and creative ways. One of my teachers likes to say “all music is sacred music” because of its power to provoke profound insights into our emotional and spiritual lives. This has always been my experience with music and I want to share it with others.
What’s next for you?
I’m not sure where we’re headed after our year in Rome, but I do know that my next project is a CD and documentary style film of a participatory jazz vespers service for the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s composed for cantor, congregation, and jazz piano trio and the antiphons are based on Sufjan Stevens’ beautiful song The Transfiguration. I love to compose music for listening, but another one of my passions is to create liturgical music that people in the congregation want to sing!