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CD: St Martin-in-the-Fields

Will TODD (b. 1970)
Evensong in Blue
Give me joy in my Heart [4:20]
Glory to Thee my God this Night [3:43]
Amazing Grace [7:05]
Lighting the Way [3:33]
Durham Jazz Evensong (2008) [29:06]
Bring us, O Lord God [4:54]
O When the Saints [3:45]
Come Down and Hold me [4:36]
The Choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields
Will Todd Ensemble/Andrew Earis
rec. 31 January - 1 February 2011, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London
English texts included
SMITF CD02 [61:12]

Experience Classicsonline


Back in 2008 I reviewed a recording of Will Todd’s 2003 composition, Mass in Blue. I had some reservations about the piece but enjoyed quite a lot of it. This new disc, produced by the London church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, brings us a more recent jazz liturgical venture, Todd’s Durham Jazz Evensong in what I assume is its first recording.
 
The Evensong comprises settings of three Psalms, numbers 124 to 126, together with settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the Lord’s Prayer and the final prayers and collect. I may as well say straight out that, though it has its moments I don’t think the music is anywhere near as interesting as that of Mass in Blue. The main reason is that the choral writing is much more limited. I haven’t seen a score but quite a lot of the piece requires the choir to sing in unison and where they do divide into parts the harmony is much more basic than was the case with the Mass. It may well be that the Evensong setting has been deliberately designed to be within the compass of a decent church vocal group for liturgical use, whereas Mass in Blue is a concert work. In the absence of any comment in the notes that accompany the disc or on the composer’s own website, it’s not possible to be sure.
 
To a much greater extent than was the case in Mass in Blue, the musical interest lies in the jazz band accompaniment, which sounds to be delivered with real relish by the members of The Will Todd Ensemble, which includes the composer on piano. By and large, Todd’s writing is more successful overall in the quieter passages of the Evensong, perhaps because in these stretches of music he achieves an attractive simplicity of style. So, for example, I find the first two of the three psalm settings, in which the choir has what is essentially a chant over a fairly subdued accompaniment, more attractive than the setting of Psalm 126, which is more forceful and underpinned by a heavy rock-like drum beat. Much of the Magnificat setting is for unison choir over a bluesy accompaniment but at the words “He hath showed strength with his arm” Todd’s music seems to shift up a gear and it becomes more vital and more inventive. I liked the Nunc dimittis, especially the opening pages where a quietly keening saxophone in the background provides a most effective background to the choir. The concluding prayers, in which the choir sings what sounds like four-part harmony, are engaging.
 
My overall reaction to Evensong in Blue is that it’s probably more effective either heard live in a liturgical context or else experienced as a participant. I’m not sure it works as well when heard simply as an audio recording, despite the excellent, committed performance it receives here. And for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, the service of Evensong just doesn’t seem to me to sit comfortably with a jazz idiom. I wasn’t so conscious of this when I heard Mass in Blue. Oddly, it may be because that work is sung in Latin rather than the English that’s employed for Evensong. Or perhaps it’s that I associate Evensong with end-of-the-day reflection, which may account for the fact that I find Todd’s more upbeat music doesn’t work as well. But, as ever, I’m conscious that others may react very differently for we’re in the realms of subjective judgement here.
 
The rest of the disc is filled out with jazz arrangements by Todd of four hymns plus three of his original works. The hymn arrangements are something of a disappointment in that Todd has done little more than supply a jazz accompaniment - and I don’t know how much of these accompaniments may be improvised - over which the hymn tune is sung in unison. Even more than was the case with the Evensong, I suspect these hymns are designed for congregational use, in which case a unison vocal line is entirely appropriate, but it doesn’t make for the most interesting CD listening. Todd’s approach is quite effective for the more upbeat items such as ‘O When the Saints’ and the relentlessly chipper ‘Give me joy in my Heart’. However, I don’t think it’s a case of ‘bah, humbug’ to say that there’s a stylistic clash when Tallis’s tune and Thomas Ken’s words are underpinned by a jazz accompaniment in ‘Glory to Thee my God this Night’. It just doesn’t feel right. 

On the other hand, once one has got past the unaccompanied opening trombone solo, which is too extended, Todd’s arrangement of ‘Amazing Grace’ is really very fine indeed. In this subdued, reflective setting interesting choral harmonies are underpinned by a restrained, smoky piano accompaniment. This is one of the most impressive tracks on the whole disc. A similar style pervades Todd’s approach to Bring us, O Lord God. We are a long, long way from Sir William Harris’s immortal setting of the same words but Todd’s quiet, reflective music - scored for what sounds like four-part choir and piano - is a very valid, contemporary response to the text, one that brings its own rewards, and the sincerity of Todd’s music is disarming.
 
So, something of a mixed bag in terms of the music but the quality of the performances is excellent. If you are interested in jazz in the liturgy then this collection is worth investigating.
 
John Quinn 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


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