Well, I have been on another mad roller-coaster within the usual rollercoaster of my life. Today is a particularly historic day in the annals of sacred jazz here in the UK. It is either the end or the continuation or even the beginning of a journey to sharing faith in music on a whole new level.
I still don’t know why there is no professional-level gospel choir in my life – butI have a few decent suspicions and I am prepared to wait for God to explain to me in His own time. But one reason may well have been that He knew that the Veritas Orchestra – what I believe to be a pretty-groundbreaking project – would take as much time as it has. It has been an enormous sacrifice, and I have frequently wondered if it was the right thing. And now, I know that I don’t get to have ‘assurance’ of the kind that my flesh wants. I get to have the assurance that God provides. In the words of George Marshall, I am no longer setting my course by the lights of passing ships – I am setting my course by the stars. Even my fellow church members are not what I need to ultimately tell me if I am on track or not – that is the job for the Great Creator Himself.
I’d like to post some elements of the programme notes for tonight’s concert below so that folk (not least my fellow Seventh-Day Adventists) can see just what is going on…
The pieces themselves:
Elizabeth is one of the pieces that has been premiered this year by the VO. Emma-Jean is a final-year undergraduate student who leads the trumpet section, but who has in fact won a place to study for a MMus in Jazz Composition at Trinity College of Music in the autumn. Elizabeth is one of a number of ‘FACES’ that she has worked on this year, and while there are some clear compositional influences, she is closer than many other young jazz composers to having a style of her own. As with all of her music, this is a very personal tune – and written specifically for Greg to play.
Brother Gabriel is another deeply personal piece of music – not about a person as such (although Gabriel is a real person), but about the big questions and the search for meaning and answers. Both the composer (Patrick Cornelius, a US internationally-renowned alto sax player) and the arranger (Ollie Howell, himself a final-year undergraduate jazz drummer/bandleader who is certainly a rising star as both performer and composer/arranger) were in positions of personal difficulty in their lives when they respectively wrote – and arranged – this piece. As with the previous tune, this arrangement was written specifically for Joe Northwood (himself a recent RWCMD jazz graduate) to play and is very intense.
Faith in God takes on a different dimension in countries where resources are more scarce. For many Africans (including South Africans), religious faith merges into other contexts and situations of life. Doze Kwela is kind of on the border between the secular and the sacred but loosely translated, the message is ‘get up and praise!’ This arrangement (by Alex) has been written as an example of ‘sacred jazz’ and specifically conceived for our special guests who have agreed to come and join us tonight on this tune – the effervescent Lee Goodall (a highly-regarded alto saxophonist) and the hugely-informed Huw Warren (one of the outstanding British jazz pianists with a genuine international reputation) – both of whom have also been great servants of the College through their teaching and mentoring within the jazz department (not least of several current VO members!).
The Great Sage was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the 2002 London Jazz Festival. Julian Joseph is one of the country’s biggest names in jazz. As pianist, composer, broadcaster and more he has worked across contemporary classical music as well as jazz. A Berklee graduate from the halcyon era (in his case, the ‘80’s’), he is held in extremely high regard by US maestros such as Wynton and Branford Marsalis but has also collaborated with the likes of Joanna MacGregor and been a featured soloist with major European orchestras.
He has always taken an interest in young musicians – especially those serious about jazz. Tonight’s MD (that would be myself) is one of those – a former member of Julian’s big band and the first bass clarinet player to perform this work. It is a real privilege to be performing this work for you tonight and we hope to do the composer proud. Our featured soloist Chris is a prize-winning graduate of the RWCMD jazz programme and one of the best young jazz pianists of his age in the UK right now.
Julian has what might best be described as a ‘Methodist background.’ The Great Sage is not an intrinsically religious work, but it certainly has a spiritual quality to it, and the composer certainly believes that music and the inspiration for it comes from outside humanity. Right across the three movements the themes of wisdom, truth, mastery and divinity are all explored in the music. Tonight’s MD has certainly taken a spiritual approach to this piece, and will be trying to weave a tapestry of colours that evokes the spirit and majesty of the true Sage that really is the ultimate Source of wisdom, power and love—indeed, in an oblique but serious way, the three movements could be each be said to sequentially represent the three big ideas in John 14:6; the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Love is a much-abused and misunderstood word. But it is fundamental to successful human existence. And yet the emphasis placed on romantic love by modern society is almost grotesque when we consider that family relations break down more often than any of us would like – and even platonic friendships are not always as stable as they can be. Many people hurt over lost friendships. As such, the love that the final song tonight – I Could Sing of Your Love Forever (one of the most well -loved worship songs of the last decade) – speaks about is not a human love. It’s something more, from Someone more. God’s love is something which many people and many Christians understand in many different ways, but for tonight’s MD and others who share biblical Christian faith, the word ‘gospel’ is more than a music style – it is a Person – and a message. And because that message has changed the lives of so many people, and because music is amazing and people have the freedom to share whatever worldviews they hold dear in their music, tonight’s MD is boldly declaring that there is no other love like God’s love and invites all audience members to really listen to the music and ponder for themselves.
INTRODUCTION TO THE VERITAS ORCHESTRA
The Veritas Orchestra started life two years ago as a somewhat amorphous RWCMD jazz orchestra – alongside other ensembles that also bore that same name. It was conceived by Alexander, who was (interestingly and confusingly for some) a choral conducting student at College but one who also had with a serious background in music education at nearly every level and a desire to work in a serious way with the jazz students at College. Initially, the plan was to do no more than introduce the aforementioned students to the joys and technical/musical challenges of playing a variety of jazz styles in a really disciplined and focussed manner and give them something in that way. Ollie Howell quickly became the main co-conspirator in this project (eventually being appointed as Assistant Music Director). Because Alexander had received a call to Christian ministry in Easter 2009, in his mind this was supposed to be a one-shot project that would end, and that would be that.
Despite a year of radical ups and downs with personnel, the band were able to string a few performances together in the summer of 2010 that were extremely well-received – despite having only two trombones (we hereby laud Liam Treasure and Rowan Hunter in absentia who somehow managed to make two sound like four) at one stage. That might well have been it – but then a long sequence of events transpired to ensure that the band kept going. However, with Alexander’s ministry calling weighing firmly on him, he knew that it would be impossible to be part of just ‘regular’ jazz music-making. So in resisting the calls to call the ensemble after himself, after much thought and one or two discussions, the band was formally named the Veritas Orchestra – not ‘jazz orchestra’ because (as Emma-Jean pointed out ) that would trigger pre-conceptions that were not at all in keeping what this band was going to be about.
Veritas is the Latin word for ‘truth.’ This is not merely a notional concept – the remit of this ensemble was and is to not only serve as a serious advocate for jazz in more formal music-making contexts but also to promote the idea of both jazz and music in general as a means of communication rather than mere entertainment. Jazz is more than ‘light’ music. It is more than dance music. It is even more than ‘music which swings!’ It’s not just ‘cocktail-lite’ or party-enhancing. It can make you smile in a serious way. It can of course make you laugh. And it can be the most entertaining music you’ve ever heard.
But when jazz becomes serious, it does more than entertain you. It has the capacity to evoke emotions through personal emotive musical expression in ways that more formalised genres simply don’t permit. It can make you think about the most profound questions—indeed, jazz musicians frequently look for answers without even knowing the questions!
As such, the repertoire that we play at present has been designed to have as broad an appeal as possible whilst refusing to pander to popular sentiment and secular values. Without question, it is the serious side of jazz, and with an MD whose personal musical oeuvre ranges from sacred baroque music to contemporary jazz via gospel music, there is a very wide range of technical and musical challenges posed by the music that the VO plays and in the commensurate demands that are made of the ensemble members. It has not always been an easy relationship, but while some have come and gone, the relative stability that has now been established is a testament to this group of players who, when the time comes, have never once failed to try their hardest to play as well as they can.
It has not been easy for the MD to juggle the growing challenges of theological and pastoral endeavours with both ensemble leadership and performance in a genre that historically many conservative Christians have found challenging because of the stigmas attached to ‘jazz.’ And yet, the music that the Veritas Orchestra plays is deeply spiritual (not always the same as ‘religious’). That said, even the tiny number of explicitly sacred musical arrangements that the VO currently play shows how much incredible scope there is to actually explore Christian faith itself in jazz. The jazz orchestra itself is an incredible medium for musical expression, and gospel-inspired music for big band is increasingly popular in cartain quarters. But it is in expressing the sacred through music that has traditionally been considered as profane that has posed a monumental challenge. The profundity of this journey would be hard to overstate, but the proof of the pudding lies in what has been achieved this year and while no-one is in a position to have any real idea of how things will work in the future, it is to be hoped that this ensemble will indeed keep on going in some way, shape or form.
So there we have it. Here at the theomusicology blog, I would also like to announce that by God’s grace, if the Veritas Orchestra continues, then without question we will be moving to concert programmes that are entirely sacred. That is going to require God to work multiple miracles, but I know that that is the direction for this ensemble. It will not be easy – but the gospel is big enough reason to go through whatever pain barriers God permits (assuming that this is His will) to make that happen and send an uncompromising message of faith in and through music.
And then – I start my first-ever tour as a solo artist – playing solo piano and eveloping this sacred musical material.
There is SO much to say, but I must now go and attend to the rest of the day’s duties. I’ve had a good devotional time with the Lord – praise His Name! And let us now see what we shall see…
Have a blessed day, dear readers and if you are able to pray for us, then please do so – and know that your prayers will be appreciated more than I can say.