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

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AuthorPhil Price