"Bassist and composer Ike Sturm’s Jazz Mass is an excellent work that melds jazz and the mass genre together extremely well, a feat I’ve not heard before… Jazz Mass, which exudes serenity, peacefulness and a still calmness, employs a choir, string orchestra, a top-notch rhythm section and the stellar front-line of saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Loren Stillman and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.” - Downbeat
On Sunday, November 15, bassist Ike Sturm will celebrate the official release of his self-produced JazzMass recording with a special performance at St. Peter’s Church, where he works as the jazz music director. The performance will feature most of the original players on the CD, including Donny McCaslin, as well as a choir with singers from St. Peter’s, the Union Seminary and the jazz community.
For a music so closely associated with vice, from Storyville to the speakeasies and beyond, jazz has developed a surprisingly robust tradition of sacred music. Artists as diverse as Duke Ellington and Vince Guaraldi have recorded sacred concerts; both Dave Brubeck and Mary Lou Williams composed extended liturgical works after their conversion to Catholicism; and, in fact, many of the finest jazz performers of the modern era—John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett’s American quartet come to mind—manage to evoke a quasi-ritualistic spirituality in the midst of purely secular outings.
Ike Sturm works within this niche tradition, and matches up a top-drawer jazz combo with strings and choir for a full mass, from Kyrie to closing hymn, in a manner that avoids the typical pitfalls of the genre. The most common shortcoming of such works, in my experience, is that the jazz elements are so chastened by the liturgical framework that they lose their bearings. The resulting work runs the risk of undermining the potent intentionality we associate with great jazz.
Sturm proceeds with a different game plan here, however, and his jazz combo successfully maintains its own personality, while situated in the midst of strings and voices that handle the heavy metaphysical lifting. The combination is effective on the “Kyrie,” the only element of the liturgy sung in Greek, especially with the soulful opening passage and the swirling coda. In these final moments, fervent jazz arises unexpectedly from the sacred mists and shows us how this dialogue is supposed to work. This is a daring and heartfelt work, and it’s a shame that no label is behind it…
-Ted Gioia, Jazz.com
Jazzblog.ca – Ottawa Citizen
By far the most religious and ambitious of this batch is bassist/composer Ike Sturm’s JazzMass, an hour-long suite that involves a choir, a string orchestra, and some A-list New York jazz players. Rather than Christmas jazz, it is Christian jazz. Sturm, is the musical director at Saint Peter’s Church, the spiritual home for New York’s jazz community which over the years has staged memorial services for greats such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He’s enlisted the likes of saxophonists Loren Stillman and Donny McCaslin, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Adam Benjamin, guitarist Ryan Ferreira, and drummer Ted Poor to help bring his stirring, majestic music to life. Also playing a key role onJazzMass is Sturm’s wife, the classical soprano Misty Ann Sturm.
The soaring quality of Sturm’s disc and its wide embrace of classical, pop, Americana and jazz influences make me think of the Maria Schneider Orchestra (the presences of McCaslin and Jensen help too in this regard). Like Schneider, Sturm has been able to draw passonate performances from his musicians with his compelling material. McCaslin, whom I think of as an especialy spiritually motivated jazzman, plays with passion on Gloria, and the disc’s closing track, Shine. Alto saxophonist Stillman’s playing is a bit of a revelation. While on his own projects Stillman’s writing and playing tends to be more cryptic and even quirky, his playing on the more direct material of JazzMass is joyous. He and pianist Benjamin unleash torrents of melody on Sanctus. There are tracks without any instrumental soloing, and they are just as important to the larger narrative of Sturm’s disc. Thanksgiving is a shimmering, pulsating evocation for strings, not unlike the the two tracks that conclude Brian Blade’s deeply spiritual disc Mama Rosa. After a short introduction by McCaslin, Sturm and Poor, Our Father is a waltzing prayer for jazz choir.
Rich, complex and tremendously committed, JazzMass is a disc that I would play year-round, not just at Christmas.
- Peter Hum, Jazzblog.ca
Those familiar with Saint Peter’s Church in midtown and their Jazz Ministry know bassist Sturm as the Musical Director. He was commissioned to develop a mass for choir, strings and septet. The recording, not surprisingly, is spiritually inspired. Featuring, but not limited to the talents of Ryan Ferreira, Loren Stillman, Ted Poor and Donny McCaslin, it may encourage you to give church another shot.
- Layla Macoran, NY Cultural Examiner
Because of its transcendent nature, listening to jazz is often considered to be a spiritual experience. Certainly listening to John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) is a larger-than-life experience. Same can be said of bassist Ike Sturm’s JazzMass, a 10-part construction for jazz septet, voices and strings that presents prayer and music as a sacrament.
Sturm, graduate of the Eastman School of Music and protégé of Dave Holland, is the music director for the jazz ministry at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan. He was commissioned to compose and produce this music by St. Peter’s, where a weekly jazz vespers service is held.
Without a doubt a labor of love, the recording features an all-star cast of jazz musicians including saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Loren Stillman, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and drummer Ted Poor. Taking the format of a Catholic Mass, the music proceeds from invocation (“Kyrie”) to recessional (“Shine”). Sturm’s arrangement blends a 14-member choir, 10-piece string section, and septet in such a feathery manner that the music levitates. The outstanding performer here is leading vocalist Misty Ann Strum, whose sung recitation of sacred text is the center of the recording.
For jazz listeners the intersection of a choir, strings and a jazz septet is perplexing. If not for Sturm’s arrangement, that may be true; but when McCaslin’s tenor saxophone takes flight over the raised voices of the choir praising God, the fit feels natural. This is not jazz plus strings as much as it is a unified concept, as if this church’s roof is big enough to fit the many sounds invited into this Mass.
After Sturm’s solo bass “Interlude,” Misty Ann Sturm is backed by the jazz septet on “Just As I Am”; McCaslin responding with Coltrane-like flights of notes before the hushed vocalist returns, accompanied by strings. Guitarist Ryan Ferreira supplies the supernatural voice behind “Offering: Stillness,” a wordless vocal piece that champions a tender and sympathetic mood, and he flavors the improvised Thanksgiving” with more ethereal and exquisite notes. The music ends with “Hymn: Shine” an uplifting folk/spiritual piece that is a perfect blues processional, allowing the anointed to go forth into the world thinking peaceful and engaged thoughts.
- Mark Corroto, All About Jazz
The blending of Western European harmony as emphasized by the Christian church with African American rhythms and “blue” notes created the music we know and love as jazz. However, the alliance between the cathedral and the juke joint has been an uneasy one. Few true religious jazz works have been composed, although those that have been created have been written by giants such as Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Bassist Ike Sturm is the music director for Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan – a church long known for its support of jazz music. He recently was commissioned by the church to compose a Jazz Mass for a superb15-voice choir (including Wisconsin’s own Janet Planet), string orchestra and jazz septet. The result is this stunning work.
While not myself a member of a Catholic Church, I have attended services and have been impressed with the power imparted by the shimmering choral presentations that have endured for centuries. Sturm retains this as a basis (admittedly, I am not sure how closely this follows an actual mass format), while bringing the jazz element into bear in a seamless manner. Just as a few examples, “Gloria” features African-flavored guitar, “Thanksgiving” highly-effected electric guitar (ala Robert Fripp), while public-domain hymn “Just As I Am” (arranged by Sturm) adds a haunting almost screaming saxophone solo and string swells, and “Sanctus” breaks suddenly into a jazz piano solo. Led by wife Misty Ann Sturm’s lovely vocals and her husband on bass, the septet features Donny McCaslin on tenor sax, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ryan Ferreira on guitar, Adam Benjamin on acoustic and electric pianos, Ted Poor on drums and Loren Stillman on alto sax. The compositions are deceptively clean and simple, allowing the melodies to maintain their central focus within the framework. A work of depth expressing love, peace and spirituality – a rarity (unfortunately) in this or any time.
- Brad Walseth, JazzChicago.net
CD discoveries of the week. One of the most peaceful and enriching albums I’ve heard so far this pre-holiday season is Ike Sturm’s JazzMass. Bassist Sturm composed and arranged a suite for voices, strings and a jazz ensemble that is sweeping and uplifting.
Sturm, of course, is the music director for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter’s Church in New York. I don’t usually go for jazz albums with religious themes, since in many cases they tend to be less about jazz and more on adulation. But here, Sturm artfully finds a balance by using the pure joy and spirit of religion as a platform to present some very exciting jazz. I’m going to dig this one especially when the snow starts to fall outside my window.
- Marc Myers, Jazzwax.com
JazzMass is a carefully and thoughtfully composed Tridentine liturgy. Sturm’s vision of the liturgy is one that swings with genius composing and soloing. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin (who is making a cottage industry of sacred jazz) solos robustly on the angular “Gloria,” with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen turning in beautifully toned solo (this is the sound Chet Baker might have had had he cared). Sturm’s composing is complex and captivating, multi-layered and textured.
Misty Ann Sturm, a classically trained vocalist, provides a powerful lyricism to Sturm’s compositions. Ike provides a solo bass interlude between “Gloria” and “Just As I Am,” where he displays highly technical chops that are not so showy as to drown the melody underlying the piece. “Just As I Am” again features an intense tenor saxophone solo by McCaslin, who plays with a hard grace and dense intention. Pianist Adam Benjamin is hand-in-glove with both the Sturms.
“Offertory: Stillness” finds Ike playing electric over Misty Ann’s vocalese. The integration of the band is near perfect, the ambiance light, the space cool and resonant. “Sanctus” is arranged in competing layers between voice, piano, and strings that modulate between a populated aural landscape and a spare solo field. McCaslin turns in one his best supporting performances onJazzMass. Sturm’s traditional spiritual vision mixes well with his bold and exploratory compositional vein. This is an excellent recording whatever the inspiration.
- C. Michael Bailey, All About Jazz
Ask any jazz fans if he or she knows "When The Saints Go Marching In" orJohn Coltrane anthem "A Love Supreme" and you will most probably get an affirmative nod. Those versed in the music's history might even know Duke Ellington "Come Sunday" or his Grammy Award-winning piece "In The Beginning, God." Yet the idea of jazz as a sacred art form has not found a place in most people's minds, despite the music's debt to the gospel tradition and the considerable repertory of compositions, old and new, expressing belief in the divine.
Turning to the black churches of the south of the US circa 1900 is to find the roots of jazz. Be it in the servants' psalmodies, the congregations' responsorial chanting, or simply in the singing of hymns and spirituals to ease the hardships of every day life, black music has since nourished the music of countless musicians, from trumpeter Louis Armstrong to saxophonist Coltrane by way of singersMahalia Jackson and Ray Charles. Of course, the music has changed and evolved since Armstrong's celebrated performance of "The Saints." But jazz as a expression of faith has survived—and, with JazzMass, through bassist-composer Ike Sturm.
Though he has been busy leading his own ensemble, Sturm's principal occupation is as Assistant Director of Music for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter's Church in New York City, a position surprisingly similar to the ones classical composer Bach held throughout his career. These responsibilities include writing new music, assembling and rehearsing the choir, and helping with the organization of the music worships. That being said, although JazzMass draws from the same sense of piety and devotion such celebrations invoke, it nevertheless ventures far from the usual forms of devotional music, which, in the end, may not be such a bad thing at all.
For both its massive instrumental apparatus (choir, strings orchestra and jazz combo) and slightly altered formal organization, Sturm's "Mass" hardly qualifies as a liturgical work, at least not one apparently destined to accompany a typical Roman Catholic Mass. For example, besides the aforementioned orchestra, the credo was abandoned. Instead instrumental interludes, songs and full-blown solo sections have been woven into the remaining sections of the Mass as transitional material, making the end result sound more like an extended suite than a musical liturgy.
"Our Father," for example, takes the allure of a conventicle as saxophonist Donny McCaslin, drummer Ted Poor and pianist Adam Benjamin conjure a heavenly improvisation, only to be halted by the angelic voices of the choir. The Kyrie, performed in a laid-back, almost sexy groove, could also very well stand by itself apart from the suite, its compositional architecture being so evocative. The recording ends on a joyful note with the corralling of "Hymn: Shine," a diatonic, carol-like waltz, with some spirited soloing by McCaslin.
Sturm offers a weighty yet luminous work that is profound and appealing, in terms of its spirituality, amalgam of human voices, richly textured harmonies and superior improvisers.
- Martin Gladu, All About Jazz
Impressive jazz lines are married to soaring vocals as Sturm combines jazz with the text from a Lutheran church service. Part jazz performance and part worship, the effort is intriguing and satisfying.
Ike Sturm bőgős, zeneszerző és együttes vezető a new york-i Szent Péter kápolna zenei vezetője. A Jazz Kápolna néven is ismert intézmény felkérésére alkotta meg ezt a különleges zeneművet, amelyet 2009. november 15-én mutatnak be a kápolnában. A hagyományos misék elemeit zenei formában tartalmazó 10 részes művet jazz szeptettre, vonósokra és kórusra szerezte Sturm. A lemezen kiváló muzsikusokból álló all-star együttes valamint kiváló énekes szólisták (Misty Ann Sturm, Loren Stillman, Ingrid Jensen, Ryan Ferreira, Adam Benjamin, Ike Sturm, Ted Poor és Donny McCaslin) adja elő a művet példamutató átéléssel.
In a word this is ‘drop dead’ lovely.…I’ve always felt that God is a very hip Lord, attuned to great harmony, melody as well as inventing compelling, artistic, and intellectual musical ideas for our edification, et al. With the addition of strings and the Gregorian-esque vocal choir, how can anyone not love this CD propject? Ike Sturm has succeeded in ‘saying much’ as it were in a very small space of time with an engaging, clear, and complex, (albeit simple) musical theme that is yet particularly delicate and subtle. The whole movement is a masterpiece of imaginative and inventive understatement. Although a serious undertaking, it still contains all the essence of our beloved jazz idiom with its liveliness and rhythmic energy. The project is particularly lovely in its passionate intensity and lyrical grace. This is a singularly beautiful and canonic musical statement that ultimately becomes a wholly delightful effort of charm and warm tenderness the more it is played.
- George W Carroll, Ejazz News