James Tatum ‘Contemporary Jazz Mass’ / ‘Live at Orchestra Hall & The Paradise Theater’ CD/DIG/Vinyl (Jazzman) 5/5

james-tatumOwning a copy of the original Contemporary Jazz Mass LP takes time, effort and money. Depending on condition, getting hold of a copy will probably set you back somewhere in the region of £200 – £300 and may take several months of searching online.
For those of you who don’t want to wait or spend the heightened price tag then fortunately Jazzman Records have re-issued Contemporary Jazz Mass on Vinyl, Digital and CD. The latter includes Tatum’s second album, ”Live at Orchestra Hall & the Paradise Theater” as well.
I have a fairly pragmatic approach to re-issues; providing the sound quality is good enough then I’m prepared to accept the compromise. Of course, Jazzman has a proven track record when it comes to these types of releases, providing detailed liner notes to help contextualise the artist and the release as well as the music itself.
Tatum was commissioned by St Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, Detroit to compose the Mass. His inspiration came from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts performed some years earlier. At the time Ellington’s Concerts were quite controversial. Whilst they contained scriptural references they did not follow liturgical form and whilst Ellington did not intend this religious conservatives responded poorly to what they saw as a syncretistic amalgamation of faith and jazz. Broadly speaking however the Concerts were received positively and in the following years a number of similar projects combined elements of liturgical structure and/or content with jazz. Examples include Paul Horn and Lalo Schifrin’s “Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts”, Mary Lou Williams’ “Mary Lou’s Mass” and “Black Christ of the Andes”, but gospel/choral influences are also evident in work by others – Donald Byrd, Archie Shepp, Andrew Hill and Max Roach, for example.

Tatum’s Mass avoided the controversy of these quasi-religious compositions by sticking to the liturgical text.

The Mass was first performed at St Cecilia’s in May 1973, and released as an album on Tatum’s own JTTP Record label in 1974. The band comprised of Tatum’s regular trio plus additional local Detroit musicians drafted in for the occasion. Conwell Carrington and Ursula Walker provided vocals with choral support.

Music helps create and heighten the tone of ceremony and ritual. It’s important to understand that this music was written for a church service, but nonetheless this tone, and the emotional response it evokes, can resonate in the secular world as well, whether we call it Spiritual or Gospel Jazz.

The opening bars of “Introduction/Lord Have Mercy” are solemn, with horns calling the listener to attention and acting as a clarion call. The track has a distinct, dramatic quality, signifying the transformation from the mundane to the spiritual. When Carrington’s voice first enters, towards the end of the composition, it instills a slightly unnerving sense of foreboding in his passionate baritone.

“Lord Have Mercy” aside the rest of the album has a lighter tone, a mixture of songs and instrumentals, rich in melody and harmony.

For me the vocal roles are quite defined and both are equally appealing. Carrington’s style is worldly, knowing, paternal even, Walker’s no less powerful but filled with optimism. These different means of expression are most apparent on the devotional “Gloria” which features both leads. “Holy, Holy, Holy” is mellifluously light and uplifting, and “The Lord’s Prayer”, well we all know the lyrics, don’t we?

Tracks like “Amen” and “Alleluia” feature the 13-piece choir, The Motif. The latter opens slowly, with a deliberate pulse-like rhythm lifted by soft harmonies and Tatum’s embellishments on keys. This meditative calm is dispelled when the tempo picks up and the musicians come to the fore, not in an act of ego, but to exult the congregation.

Throughout, the intention of the music is not to showcase the virtuosity of the musicians involved, but at different times to stimulate contemplation, devotion and praise. The results are both reverent and enriching. Taylor’s delightfully meandering lines on the electric piano lift the melodies; take my favourite instrumental track, “Communion” for example.

As much as the music arouses an emotional response centred in the spiritual sound and messages, for me it is also conjures up the structure it is was performed in as well. The sound is wonderfully open, to the extent that you can imagine it reverberating around the expanse of the church.

“Live at Orchestra Hall & the Paradise Theater”, recorded 7 years later, is a continuation in style, albeit without the consistent intensity or quality of his seminal work. It’s no coincidence that the strongest track in this set, “Zoombah Lu”, is reminiscent of tracks like “Alleluia”.

Jazzman had already released several tracks from these LPs prior to this release and I approached it with some concern that we had already heard the best. I’m happy to report that there is plenty more to enjoy and this, for me, is the best re-issue of the year so far.

Andy Hazell