Will Todd is one of those English composers
who exist at the periphery of people's awareness. There have
been several CDs - The Burning Road and St Cuthbert's
Mass - but none have drawn him closer to the centre. This
should help. It's on a well known independent label, it's
accessible, sung by one of the world's finest choirs and the
music lingers in the memory and beckons you back.
The signature piece is the Mass in Blue commissioned
by David Temple and the Hertfordshire Chorus. It's for choir
plus piano, soprano, drum-kit, timps, woodwind and sax, two
trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone. It had its first
performance at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 12
July 2003 with Will Todd at the
piano. As on this CD, his wife, Bethany Halliday, sang the
soprano solo. On that occasion they were joined by The Blue
Planet Orchestra and the Hertfordshire Chorus and David Temple.
I do not recall a Mass-Jazz fusion piece
before. This one sticks with the latin words for the standard
mass sequence: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus,
Agnus Dei. It steps through the blending and shifting boundaries
between tonal classical reverence, cool urban jazz and smoking
blues. The essence of the swaying and volatile spiritual mediates
the rough edges. The Mass is a substantial piece in which
Ms Halliday - Todd's wife, the daughter of a Baptist pastor
- turns her Lamborghini of a voice loose on the music. She
croons, sways and erupts, encompassing the range from metropolitan
cool, foot-tapping Ella to the pyroclastic flow and blast
of Mahalia Jackson (an early influence). She is heard at full
tilt in the pyrotechnics of Credo. Things cool and return
closer to classical comfort - say Poulenc - in the Sanctus.
Even so it is mesmerisingly tugged by Todd's smoochily relaxed
piano and smilingly discreet riffs of the band and drumkit.
After a steady then sprinting Benedictus comes the final Agnus
Dei which opens, as does the whole work, with Todd's bluesy
solo piano. Halliday anoints the celebration with a meditative
bluesy melisma that accelerates into the final three minutes.
The Credo returns and the blue touch paper is lit for a ferment
of jazz pyrotechnics.
There follow eight short pieces for the
choir. These are in closer touch with the tonal melodic English
mainstream. All are accomplished and fresh and are superbly
and smoothly sung. The singing of Christus est stella (2003)
takes us from singing of a honeyed aura all the way to an
almost slavonic fervour. The Christ-child (1997) is
piano accompanied and provides yet more balm in a deeply appealing
rocking motion - populist but patently sincere. The piano
appears with the voices again in Ave Verum Corpus (2001).
None other lamb (1998) is for choir alone - a simple
piece with no concessions to the popular taste for the catchy
or the sweet. The Rose (1998) has the piano returning
in quiet pulse beneath a tender melodic outline yet adding
exaltation at 2.10. Lead me Lord (1997) is laid out
for soprano solo (here Fiona McWilliams) and choir. This is
a simple and easily picked-up melody. Writing such pieces
must surely require high artistry or we would be awash with
them. In the UK you might hear this in quiet consolation on programmes
such as Songs of Praise. Memorably sing-song and with
an easy rocking jazz piano accompaniment we then get Lighting
the Way (2000). This track will be played again and again
and will insinuate its way into your whistling repertoire.
Jazz returns in the solo piano and in the singing of Every
Stone Shall Cry. This recalls the Joseph Horovitz idiom
of Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo.
All the words are printed and there’s
good background on the composer and the artists.
There you have it: a Jazz Mass (more Jazz
than English mainstream) and a selection of Will Todd's enjoyable
choral pieces. Choral singers and directors (church and secular)
on the lookout for enriching their choirs choice should get
this as should anyone who appreciates a well-turned piece
of sung music that brings off the balance between accessibility
and sustained creative delight.