Wynton Marsalis Goes Back To Church For 'Abyssinian Mass' The trumpeter and bandleader premiered his gospel-jazz Abyssinian Mass back in 2008. But now, accompanied by a 70-voice choir, he's taking the sprawling work on the road and into African-American churches — whose services were the inspiration for the piece.

Wynton Marsalis Goes Back To Church For 'Abyssinian Mass'

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Wynton Marsalis is going back to church. The Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning trumpeter, and the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has created a stunning, sprawling work that combines secular and sacred music. "Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration" is currently on a 16-city tour. For our series Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America, NPR's John Burnettcaught up with the show in Charlotte, N.C.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Wynton Marsalis is sipping hot tea in a church conference room before the scheduled evening performance, and he's riffing on one of his favorite subjects: the universality of rhythm.

WYNTON MARSALIS: (Clapping, humming "Greensleeves") We all know "Greensleeves." There's a lot of music with that feeling.

BURNETT: He's showing how the common 6/8 time signature straddles musical worlds, from a classic folk song to a jazz beat.

MARSALIS: So you modify that rhythm a little bit - now, let's go into jazz shuffle. (Clapping, humming "Greensleeves") That's the same rhythm. Speeded up - African zig zag...

BURNETT: He's tapping out the beat with his fingers on a notebook.

MARSALIS: (Clapping, humming "Greensleeves") So all the musics are related.

BURNETT: All the musics are related - that's a good way to get into his massive "Mass," nearly two and a half hours long, with intermission.


BURNETT: the "Abyssinian Mass" digs deeply into what Marsalis would call the soil of the black church: its shouts, its dirges, its spirituals, its hymns of praise. With this work, he celebrates the seminal influence the church has had on the music of black Americans, and the continuing pull it exerts on his own artistic and spiritual life.

MARSALIS: the "Abyssinian Mass" tries to cover a lot of different types of music and put them together, and show how they all come from one expression - as the Mass itself is about, everyone has a place in the house of God.


BURNETT: Marsalis, who just turned 52, was commissioned to write this piece for the 2008 bicentennial celebration of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. His composition, however, follows the progression of a Roman Catholic service. His mother, Delores, would take him to St. Francis Catholic Church in New Orleans, where he remembers the order of the Mass - from the Devotional through the Gloria Patri, to the Benediction.

MARSALIS: I love the form of the Mass because when I was younger, I was always wondering, when would it be over? Because I was wondering when is this going to be over, I started to notice the form of OK, when they get to this part, it's almost over.

BURNETT: Every section of Marsalis' musical "Mass," like the Catholic Mass, is distinct from the other parts. His 15-piece band charges into the spaces in between, playing complex sectional counterpoint - horns against reeds - that would make Duke Ellington smile down from heaven.


BURNETT: The musicians say Marsalis' creations are challenging. They always contain at least one passage that requires virtuosic playing.


BURNETT: Vincent Gardner, the trombone section leader, has played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for 13 years. Sitting next to him is trumpet player Marcus Printup.

VINCENT GARDNER: We're so used to playing Wynton's extended works, we're always looking for that in the music. Like, we know it'll be there. So when we get a new piece, the first thing we do is flip through it and find the part that has all the notes - because you know it's in there somewhere.

MARCUS PRINTUP: It's just a matter of finding it and then getting it under your fingers, and then you can play it.


BURNETT: Then there's the choir.


BURNETT: The director of the choir and conductor of the Mass is Damien Sneed, a leading gospel music director. He handpicked 70 of the top gospel and opera singers in the country - ranging in age from 21 to 70 - just for this tour. He plans to re-assemble this dream team for future projects, so he gave them his middle name: Chorale LeChateau.

DAMIEN SNEED: The choir brings the fire, and the choir brings the truth to the "Abyssinian Mass." The choir brings the spirit. It's like the haaaaaa - you know, the breath of God.

BURNETT: This concert took place in Charlotte's African-American mega-church the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, which made it special for many of the singers and players whose first exposure to music was in a church pew. Damien Sneed, for instance, who is 34, grew up in the Baptist church in Augusta, Ga.

SNEED: Every note, every phrase, every rest, every chord will have more meaning just because of the fact that we are allowed to express ourselves not just in a performance hall, but in a place of worship.


BURNETT: The choristers sway in their burgundy robes on the risers. Mezzo soprano Patricia Eaton says it's both a performance and a prayer.

PATRICIA EATON: You know, the piece just has so many parts to it, and it was an extraordinary experience. It is an extraordinary experience. I'm excited and yet I am lifted to another place, as a religious experience.


BURNETT: The "Abyssinian Mass" sold out all 3,500 seats in the huge sanctuary of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. The audience was also a congregation. They amen-ed and shouted encouragement, and interrupted the performance with standing ovations.

Dr. Clifford Jones, longtime senior minister at the church, searched for words big enough to express his reactions.

DR. CLIFFORD JONES: Exhilarating, powerful, inspirational, affirming of both religion and culture.

BURNETT: What Wynton Marsalis has done is use the joyful stylings of the black gospel tradition to deliver a musical message of universal humanity. He says he tried to put it all in there: God and Allah, exultation and the blues, Saturday night and Sunday morning.

MARSALIS: So you need everything in the cycle. You don't need to eliminate - you say, well, it would be nice to eliminate winter. Or, you know, it would be nice to get rid of the nighttime. Well, you can't get rid of all of these opposites because they are actually the whole thing. So there is secular, and there is sacred. Shakespeare had it right when he said: To be or not to be, that is the question.


MARSALIS: And the answer is yes.


MARSALIS: To be or not to be.


BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


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