J.J. Wright recently sent me the audio recording for his latest project, Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration. The audio is one component of a larger project that includes a program complete with artwork by Daniel Mitsui along with a documentary-style film that is airing the week of Aug 6 on CatholicTV.
For a few days now I’ve been happily listening. Like his previous effort for Advent titled O Emmanuel, this one is a blend of ancient chant, hymnody, and modern jazz. There’s even some Sufjan Stevens thrown in for good measure. It’s never gimmicky, and while playful at times, is never contrived or ironic. One could image this as a possible development in the musical tradition of vespers. The integration of the refrain from Sufjan Steven’s Transfiguration is particularly exciting, as it is the first time I’ve heard a serious attempt to dialogue with one of the prime examples of the “authentic” folk music of our age. There are intersections of really thought-provoking, spiritual musical works with the so-called Indie scene that are ripe for development with Sacred Art (another that striking example is The Life of the World to Come by the Mountain Goats). I’ve heard other efforts before that are less successful, I suspect because they don’t delve deeply enough into a collaboration with the actual sacred music tradition itself and instead are content to import a current pop idiom into the mass as a way of making it “relevant”, like, say, the U2charist or the music cherished so much in the Lifeteen movement (someone had to say it, sorry). Historically, we have examples of how to successfully work within a contemporary musical language in the parody masses of a number of renaissance composers, my personal favorite being Josquin.
J.J. Wright is attempting something on a similar level, and while I think some of his efforts are more successful than others, overall I really appreciate what he’s working towards.
Here’s a slightly more controversial motivation for the album. Wright says,
I created this project with the hope of melding the Second Vatican Council’s decree for “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy with my background in jazz. I wanted to build a Vespers service where neither the congregation, nor the musicians were in the “background” of actively participating, but instead where we would be in a constant and dynamic dialogue with each other through the musical settings of the antiphons and psalms. This setting provides the opportunity for the musicians to “musically comment” on the chanted psalms in a new and creative way through the improvisation. This also creates an environment for the congregation to reflect on the texts in fresh way each time we do the service because the accompaniment is always in the moment.
Personally, I’m in agreement with the overall tone of this goal, but quibble with any definition of full, conscious, and active participation as being limited by the treasury of sacred music – this rabbit hole of various misinterpretation of “full, conscious, and active” you might not want to follow me down, and isn’t entirely relevant here, but as a rad-trad I’m duty bound to mention it – I’m probably inferring what Wright isn’t implying, but in any case, the musical work itself based on his quite appropriate Vatican II inspired goals is successful. The point is well-taken that this isn’t concert music meant to be passively consumed, but meant to be engaged with as worship. It is sacred art, meant to mediate beauty and goodness and actively draw participants into contemplation of the divine. I asked if stepping into an ancient tradition of sacred art was intimidating and Wright replied,
Yes, it’s extremely daunting, especially considering that people have been praying with the psalms long before Christ walked the earth! When I first came to Notre Dame for my Masters in Sacred Music, I thought that I had to let go of my life as a jazz musician to become a sacred musician (I remember grieving about it for months when we decided to make the move). In my first semester at Notre Dame, I took a class on Christian Liturgical Prayer in America, where the final project was for each student to either assemble or imagine anew a worship service from one of our many Christian traditions. I couldn’t figure out what to do, so I went to meet with Prof. Margot Fassler, and she said, “You do jazz, right? Make a jazz vespers service in the spirit of Vatican II…it would be so great!”. After I explained that I just couldn’t do it–“Jazz is just so different from sacred music”–she eventually convinced me to try and Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration is what came out…so there is a sense in which I was the biggest unbeliever about whether or not this could be done!
I suspect that most people who are paying attention will quickly be made believers, too.