Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis: The Abyssinian Mass

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.

You can’t accuse Wynton Marsalis of thinking small. Commissioned to compose a piece for the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 2008, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center responded with a two-hour suite for 15-piece big band and 70-voice choir. Taking the traditional structure of an African-American Baptist service as its framework, The Abyssinian Mass mirrors the liturgical ambitions of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven-filtered, as you’d expect, through the stylistic sensibilities of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis-and adds a clear message of inclusion. Many lines are repeated multiple times by the chorus, but this one is key: “Everyone has a place in the House of God.” (Yes, even atheists and agnostics. At least, one hopes so.)

Five years after Abyssinian’s anniversary, Marsalis took his sprawling work on tour, with help from the rest of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Chorale Le Chateau, directed by the dynamic Damien Sneed. This two-CD/single-DVD set was recorded toward the end of that tour, in October 2013, on home turf at Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York. The CDs present the mass in all its massiveness, while the DVD cherry picks the peak moments and mixes them with insightful commentary from Marsalis and Abyssinian’s Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, who delivers the sermon in the piece’s second half. Early on in the DVD, Marsalis mentions impishly that he first took note of the Baptist order of service as a young boy in church on Sundays. Why? “Because I always wanted it to be over.”

It’s unlikely that many listeners will feel the same way about The Abyssinian Mass. Much of the music is superb, and the performances by instrumentalists and vocalists alike are uniformly excellent. Still, any composer working on something so long and complex would be hard-pressed to maintain consistent quality throughout, and Marsalis doesn’t, losing steam and occasionally lapsing into cliché as the piece progresses.

To be fair, the first hour or so is rarely less than scintillating. A brief, vigorous full-band intro is followed by a mesmerizing series of calls and responses between various singers and members of the orchestra’s brass section, backed by the rich sonorities of the choir. The music gradually builds in pitch and intensity until we reach the anthemic processional “We Are on Our Way.” The following track, “Invocation and Chant,” is a gem, its seesaw melody sung with arresting plaintiveness by trombonist Vincent Gardner as the choir hums, the horns sigh and drummer Ali Jackson lays into a deliciously off-kilter shuffle. The rolling, tumbling saxophone lines that run through “Gloria Patri” are a minor marvel as well, and must have been a challenge to orchestrate.

Results are more mixed in the second hour, mostly because many things happen just as you’d expect them to. Damien Sneed heads over to the Hammond organ to accompany Calvin Butts’ sermon. The band plays a bunch of songs that sound almost exactly like old Baptist hymns. A piece called “The Glory Train” begins and ends with a musical simulation of a locomotive starting up and then slowing to a halt. All this fits perfectly within tradition and is executed with enviable skill. But given the sense of surprise in so much that had gone before, it’s disappointing to hear Marsalis fall back on the conventional.

Listeners hoping for a big uplifting finish will be further disappointed by the lengthy closing “Amen” section, which takes on an austere neoclassical spirit that feels flat and out of place. It might have been better to end with something more like the penultimate “Benediction,” in which another JLCO trombonist, Chris Crenshaw, takes the mic in soulful, commanding fashion. How odd, and yet somehow fitting given the context, that on a recording packed with dozens of talented singers, the two most memorable vocal performances are by horn players.

Originally Published