Monday, November 2, 2009
"Elation. Elegance. Exaltation."
This past Sunday, All Saints Sunday, Christ Church Cathedral in Houston hosted a jazz mass featuring an improvisational piece called The Gospel According to John Coltrane (based on "A Love Supreme") in lieu of the sermon. The composer's jazz quartet performed the majority of the service music gleaned from African American spirituals and Americana: "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Let Us Break Bread Together," and a rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the end of the service. The composer of the Love Supreme piece also arranged the music for the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.
As I glanced through the bulletin while listening to the bassist tune his instrument and the saxophonist warm up, I had my doubts. Not only had I had my own personal spirituality-and-Coltrane horror story (imagine a seminar on African American religion in which the students had to lie down on the floor and listen to "A Love Supreme"). I also got the sense that the cathedral's highbrow choir and congregation are much more notable for their appreciation of exquisite traditional song settings than improvisational music paired with Coltrane's psychedelic lyrical musings about how all thoughts and vibrations trace back to God. They might appreciate Coltrane in the abstract, but this was a different animal.
Early on, it became clear that the cathedral was getting pretty full - almost to Christmas and Easter numbers - and that it was a mix of people, including a good number who aren't the usual Sunday crowd. The opening hymn was a traditional Ralph Vaughan Williams accompanied by the organ, and then came the Gloria. An upbeat gospel tune. The presiding priest continued with the Collect, adding in some extra phrases (oh yes we do!) as she prayed in her Texas accent, and the congregation chuckled and then laughed loudly as we all sat for the first lesson. Clearly the jarring presence of this kind of music, the fullness of the church, and the awareness that we were mostly white folks had created a level of nervous energy that needed some release. Charismatic we are not.
Things settled down after that, and then, instead of the sermon, the Love Supreme piece began. Like the original Coltrane recording, it was a four-part piece that combined spoken word (a choir member reading of the words of Coltrane's poem from the liner notes - words that are also "spoken" through the saxophone), the choir singing certain phrases, and, of course, the quartet's music. The most jarring part: the extended drum solo. The most moving for me: the duet between the saxophone (moved to the rear of the church), and the trumpet, still in the front. From wailing and mournful to ecstatic, the two instruments played off one another, filling the entire building with their plaintive cries. All throughout, Coltrane's four beats (the part where he softly sings "a love supreme") continued, driving the music forward underneath all of the improvisation - the choir softly sang "we thank you God" from time to time as well.
I was sitting next to an elderly woman and a visitor there for the jazz (he didn't take communion), and I realized that this is what church should be. This is what Episcopalians can offer: openness and experimentation some Sundays, Anglican plainsong on other Sundays - a whole range of voices and experiences that speak to a whole range of people. If anything, I felt a strong and stirring sense of community with everyone who was in the cathedral experiencing this unusual and striking mixture, and all of this came together even more poignantly when the presiding priest proclaimed that All Saints Day was for mourning and for celebrating life - she listed all of the names of those who had died in the past year, and we renewed our baptismal vows.
The service ended perfectly with a very New Orleans version of "The Saints Go Marching In" - the choir, instead of processing, gathered at the front of the church, next to the jazz quartet, and clapped, as did we all. Somehow reconciled with this uncharacteristic display of joy in church, everyone burst into extended applause at the service's end.