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For half a century, Saint Peter’s Church in Midtown Manhattan has ministered to the jazz community, combining music with worship and presiding over memorial services for countless jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. The latest chapter of that rich history has been led by bassist/composer Ike Sturm, who has served as Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter’s since 2004.
With the release of Shelter of Trees (due out Nov. 10 via Sturm’s own Kilde Records imprint), Sturm celebrates his own landmark tenth anniversary at the church as well as the entire 50-year legacy of Jazz at Saint Peter’s. Sturm’s nine-piece band Evergreen, which has evolved into a gorgeously expressive unit over years of weekly Jazz Vespers and band tours, brings together some of New York’s most gifted musicians in service of communal creation and spiritual uplift. Shelter of Trees speaks to listeners of any faith or simply jazz aficionados in search of meaningful and emotional music.
“Bringing sacred music into a jazz setting can be uncomfortable for people,” admits Sturm. “It’s not always a natural fit. For me, it grew out of my own faith. My music comes from the deepest place I have access to within myself, so my spiritual beliefs really came through and affected what I wrote.”
Shelter of Trees is not the first time that Sturm’s faith and music have converged. His 2004 debut, Spirit, was inspired by the beauty of creation and composed in three movements, each representing a different aspect of the Holy Spirit. Its 2009 follow-up, Jazz Mass, is just that – a large-scale mass setting for choir, string orchestra and soloists. But this new album holds an even deeper personal meaning, one that makes it universally touching: it’s dedicated to his father, trombonist/composer/educator Fred Sturm, who passed away last August, shortly after the album was recorded.
The elder Sturm directed jazz studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin as well as Rochester, New York’s Eastman School of Music. Music provided a strong bond between father and son, so Sturm takes solace in the fact that he was able to play this music for his father during his battle with cancer. “It was a very challenging and painful time,” Sturm recalls, “and as I looked at all of this material that I’d been writing it was obvious where it was coming from. It was all based on renewal, and I realized how much I was struggling to find that. I felt like so much could be imparted through the music that I don’t think I could articulate in other ways, so I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to share it with him.”
The name of Sturm’s ensemble, Evergreen, reflects those same themes of renewal while referencing the natural beauty of the bassist’s native Wisconsin. The members have converged over the decade since Sturm took on his role at Saint Peter’s, a blessing that came about when the bassist, then a newcomer to the New York City jazz scene, happened upon an ad from a Lutheran church seeking a jazz musician and composer. Having been raised Lutheran and striving to discover the balance between his spiritual and musical lives at the time, Sturm sensed the job would be a perfect fit.
The band that has come together in the ensuing years features alto saxophonist Loren Stillman (Paul Motian, Bad Touch), pianist Fabian Almazan (Terence Blanchard, Linda Oh), vibraphonist Chris Dingman (Ambrose Akinmusire, Steve Lehman), guitarist Jesse Lewis (Jon Irabagon, Duchess), and drummer Jared Schonig (The Wee Trio, Laurence Hobgood), as well as vocalists Melissa Stylianou, Chanda Rule, and the bandleader’s wife, Misty Ann Sturm.
Singers and instrumentalists flow together in an organic, lucid fashion through Sturm’s music. The impressionistic beauty and open, luminescent quality that the band achieves together is a direct result of countless hours spent playing services and concerts at Saint Peter’s and on concert and festival stages around the world. “This group is very communal,” Sturm says, “more about the overall sound. We rarely decide who’s going to solo on a particular song. People feel moved at a certain time and jump in. There’s a lot of trust and unspoken communication because we’ve played together so often.”
Sturm’s compositions also reflect a decade of inspiration drawn from life and spirituality. The title “Shelter of Trees” is drawn from a poem by Cheryl Mitchell, a friend of Sturm’s from Saint Peter’s. The shimmering “Sanctus” was composed for a liturgy on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; Sturm recalls being overwhelmed by emotion during the recording of the piece. “Family,” with Lewis’ tender and tactile acoustic playing, is the composer’s most overt tribute to his late father.
Shelter of Trees is the inaugural release on Sturm’s Kilde Records label, which he plans as an outlet for new projects and material. He’s most recently embarked on a duo project with guitarist Lewis, playing hollowbody electric bass. The label’s name is a Norwegian word that roughly translates as “spring of life;” Sturm discovered it while on tour in Scandinavia. “That concept really stuck with me,” he says. “I find that having these people around me, my friends and fellow musicians, restores me and fills me with God’s love. Feeling that connection with everyone around you is incredibly powerful.”