THIS FIRST TOUR of Abyssinian Mass reached 16 US cities, played by its composer, renowned jazz and classical trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, and the extraordinary soloists of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The work is made for jazz orchestra and choir, and it features Chorale Le Chateau, a collective of soloists handpicked by our conductor, Damien Sneed. Wynton's and Damien's shared vision for the piece is steadfast: that we should play together with familial love in our ensemble sound and give of ourselves like any other time-worn congregation. Damien is a brave and sensitive conductor, and the kind who really loves singers. He respects us and is generous as we work to achieve a certain expression in the sound. As Chorale Le Chateau we are a diverse crew of singers who come from jazz, gospel, musical theater, and classical backgrounds.
I am a professional opera singer, and my fellow sopranos come from leading roles on Broadway, flourishing concert soloist careers, and the former New York City Opera. In our first rehearsal with Wynton, we tried to find our blended sound as choir sections, and we were just plain struggling. In his quiet and easy voice, Wynton stopped our singing to explain: “You have to find each other in the breath” between phrases. He elaborated that it is the most essential human urge to find another person — to be found and relate.
Above: Wynton Marsalis and Candice Hoyes. Photo by Jorell Williams.
Below: the Chorale singers rehearsing backstage. Video courtesy of Candice Hoyes.
Wynton Marsalis wrote the Mass to commemorate the bicentennial of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I first learned about Abyssinian as an institution, one attended by pillars of New York society that represents grand tradition and propriety in the African American community. It is also something much more profound and radical. The Emancipation Proclamation declared the freedom from slavery in the 10 remaining rebel states in 1863. Abyssinian Church was established in 1808, because Abyssinian founders refused segregation at their previous church. The church fostered the Harlem Renaissance and the role of faith and equality in society both at home and abroad.
In this work, the choir speaks in what I feel are African American terms, but our power and our meaning is based in the universal human experience, the desire to belong; our performance is a conversation of all musics. The Meditation section is almost wordless, sung on moans and wails — it is evocative of our earliest recordings of slave songs. Marsalis employs authentic resistance speech ("knock, knock on the door" and "when I ride, Imma riding with my white robe on") that is enduringly Black Baptist, and sets it over jazz rhythms and harmonies that illuminate these old words like a prism. The orchestra plays those vaster concepts that are central to this work, such as the section titled "Offertory,” in three movements labeled “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost." These sections thrill me to the core. Trumpeter Marcus Printup plays the Father with his impeccably pearly tone, phrasing the melody with aching tenderness and strength. Marcus said that his favorite night for this solo happened in Dallas, when he felt the presence of his own father. Marcus was “born and raised in the black church,” and he is an active member of the Abyssinian Church. The Son takes flight on Wynton’s exuberant, luminous solo, where his fat sound charges through the hall and envelopes the orchestra. The orchestra voices the Holy Spirit as a band, where each section responds to the next. The trumpets intone a soulful, ascending 4-note theme using the plunger mutes, and the saxophones play these clipped, delightfully high-pitched peals. The Holy Spirit bounds and lurches with a euphoric energy that circles us overhead. And we singers semi-circle them, listening rapt and filled each night as they make it new. I giggle with joy through this section almost every night. As Wynton said in rehearsal, it’s like something you are afraid of, but you’re really not.
Abyssinian Mass is throughout gorgeous, churning, layered, insightful, and sincere. The movements lay bare our American experience across time. At the outset, four singers, one by one, testify, “I didn’t hear nobody praying.” Chorale Le Chateau refrains with mounting intensity, "Call on the Lord!" In every performance, this reminds me of the alienation of slavery, and being truly tested by life. As we sing the response, I feel buoyed by the power of communal compassion and faith (even in one's self). This first movement is a simple call and response that, at once, cuts so deeply and embraces the audience immediately.
Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) has made the entire performance of the Abyssinian Mass from Friday, October 25 available via live stream. Performed at the Rose Theater, conducted by Damien Sneed, featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in collaboration with the 70-person Chorale Le Chateau.
You cannot imagine what a ride this is, every single night. The Mass is a riveting exposition of Judeo-Christian beliefs, Black Baptist expressions, regional American and classical musical forms, both Celtic and African rhythms, Brazilian melody, with generous amounts of gospel textures and jazz harmony and improvisation. “Everyone has a place.”
We toured state to state sprawled across four buses, playing from New York to New Orleans. Most of the time, the bus is a bottle full of stories told and stories made. Early on, we had to figure out our bus chemistry: when to make small talk, sharing space, talking shop versus playing cards, when to crack jokes and when to just pretend you are asleep. I felt a bit achy from sitting sometimes, but I really loved the massive bus windows. I felt so purposeful and free hurtling to the next gig by bus:
The tall windows are filled to the brim with sky and clouds, and mostly the fields are dotted with washed-out barns and rust and marigold colored trees. I feel small and happy like a child again. We even play like children on the bus, too, making up games and impersonations, swapping music playlists, and breaking up candy or sharing a sandwich. Traveling by bus city to city to sing something I love this much feels like planting seeds each place we play.
I interviewed Wynton Marsalis on Thursday October 24 for the Los Angeles Review of Books to discuss the Mass, the collaboration of the musicians, and how the music speaks to people all over the world. The next day, October 25, I met with our conductor Damien Sneed for “Part II” of this Abyssinian Mass conversation.