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,

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AuthorPhil Price