Preview: Abyssinian Mass, European Premiere, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center Barbican residency



The theme of collaboration runs through the Jazz at Lincoln Center  International Associate residency at the Barbican Centre - July 10 to 26; other events include an Afro-Cuban fiesta, a joint performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and a collaboration between Guildhall jazz students and the visiting American players at the Spice of Life.

ALISON BECK previews the European Premiere of Abyssinian Mass on Friday July 13th.

Gospel and jazz music will be knit together at the European premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Abyssinian Mass for 100 voices and jazz orchestra, at the Barbican Centre on 13th July.

John Cumming, the Director of Serious, explains: “We’ve been working for years with Jazz at Lincoln Center, touring around the UK as well. When Wynton was in London last summer, this residency was still being discussed and he was particularly keen to have the Abyssinian Mass performed here.”

The piece has only ever been performed once before – in New York in 2008 , to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

‘Epic’ would be a very apt word to describe the Mass, which consists of two hours of continuous music performed by the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, six vocal soloists, and a mass choir formed especially for the occasion.

Wynton Marsalis composed the music and wrote the text too, weaving together rich textures of jazz harmony and improvisation with the powerful melodies and call-and-response tradition of gospel music and spirituals.

Before the first Abyssinian Mass performance in New York, Marsalis explained what had inspired him to compose the piece. “Our music is so rich, songs like ‘Go Down Moses,’ ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’… What was in these songs was the depths of our ancestors’ tears. We’re going to spend much time studying and researching the material and it will be performed with heft and intellectual weight and integrity that befits a celebration of 200 years of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The music will be performed by some of our greatest musicians, many of whom have deep roots in the church. It will be about our lives, and about our great and great, great grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ lives.”

There is a great tradition – in both the US and the UK – of ‘crossover’ between jazz and gospel music, often with the very same musicians playing across the two different genres. And both gospel music and jazz music have their foundations in improvisation, something which features at the heart of virtually every live performance in either genre.

The choirmaster for the Barbican performance is Damien Sneed, a legendary US gospel producer, director, conductor and composer who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Kim Burrell, Donnie McClurkin, and the Clark Sisters among many others, and has a long-standing artistic relationship with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Centre.

So how have choir rehearsals been going? Jo Wallfisch, one of the 100 British singers volunteering to take part in the Barbican performance, describes Damien Sneed as “incredibly engaging, and scarily good.” At the first rehearsal “it was like he’d turned all the lights on. He’d literally just stepped off the plane from New York. He has the most unbelievable vocal range; he demonstrated every part, from soprano to bass. He’s the kind of choir director who can make anyone amazing. He’s got that magic touch of bringing it out of you.”

John Cumming has spent time behind the scenes at rehearsals too: “The bits of the choir rehearsal that I heard were pretty amazing. The richness of the singing, and the depth, is very exciting… you get this extraordinary power of the human voice. When you hear the power of a choir without amplification or anything else that can be astonishing.”

UK gospel choral director Ken Burton and his London Adventist Chorale are heavily involved in the Barbican performance. John Cumming comments: “I think it’s interesting that there is a big choral tradition right across this country, with Crouch End Festival Chorus and so many others. But there’s also a gospel choral tradition that has grown up alongside that, out of the Caribbean and African community. And there are so many contacts between the gospel community here and in the States... So really, what better place than London to host the European premiere of the Abyssinian Mass?”

Event details/ tickets from Barbican Centre website

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