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Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis: The Abyssinian Mass

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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.”

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