We are just crossing over into the third week of a Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra tour. In many ways this is very much like any other tour. We performed at UNC Chapel Hill and the Kennedy Center for something like the 8th time in as many years. Boss Murphy delivers our daily itineraries, we go from city to city, bringing music to the people. Cats are working on the bus on various projects, including a couple of us who are under the wire to get arrangements finished for our Sondheim concert series next month.
The difference with this tour is that we are traveling and performing with a 70-piece choir. This is the greatest departure from anything we have done, and certainly a logistical nightmare, with four buses and an equipment truck. Including staff we are over 90 individuals to get from hotel to sound check, back to hotel, back to gig. I gotta give it the staff for dealing with this so well.
When we showed up for our rehearsal, it hit me for the first time what was really happening. I saw on our schedule “Abyssinian Mass Tour” but didn’t comprehend just what an undertaking this was to put together. Damien Sneed, our stylish and exuberant choral director, has been rehearsing the choir for several months, getting them in shape for this very involved piece of music by Wynton. The Rose Hall rehearsal studio was packed with beautiful people of all shapes, ages and shades ready to give their soul to something. Something I am sure they didn’t quite know what it was going to be. I don’t think they anticipated fully the experience of playing with fifteen jazz musicians so committed to spirituality in our own way. I know I wasn’t ready for the intensity, both spiritually and aurally, from this large group.
There was a moment during a recent concert when Patrice, one of our soprano soloists, sang a short phrase with such clarity, control and expression that my eyes turned to water. I looked over at Walter, and his eyes were similarly wet. I couldn’t look at him any more. I focussed on the music in front of me, a quick choice to internalizing the experience - a safety measure, really. But as the music intensified, so did my willingness to be part of it; to experience it at the deeper level it was meant to be.
The venue was the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston. I guess you could call it a mega-church. Nicole, one of our alto soloists who clearly has roots in the church, went off script at the end of her solo, and for the first time we were really in a place of worship. People were cosigning, jumping to their feet. Nicole, feeling the energy, raised her pitch. I thought for a moment she had become possessed. It felt like the roof was going to come off. I was expecting a miracle to happen right in front of us. Well, in a way every opportunity to play beautiful music is a tiny miracle, and I am blessed to be able to do this night after night.
For the first couple concerts on this tour the Jazz Orchestra and the choir were in separate hotels, which didn’t allow us to socialize much. Besides light chatter back stage before going on, we hadn’t had a chance to really get to know the 70 men and woman with whom we were sharing this experience.
The first hotel we co-habited was in Norfolk, VA. After the concert, close to half of the band and choir ended up in the lobby bar, having a drink and hanging out. It was the first time people really let their hair down. As the tour has progressed I have developed a few great friendships, connections I hope to continue past this tour.
One high point so far was being in New Orleans. Of course, some of the band members grew up here and have deep connection to the Crescent City. Wes Anderson, who used to play lead alto with the band for many years, lives in nearby Baton Rouge. As it happened he had a gig at the French Quarter haunt, Snug Harbor. We had a concert at the beautifully renovated (post Katrina damage) Saenger Hall, which reminded me in some ways of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Word of Wes’s gig had spread like a brush fire through the ranks of the choir and as soon as our last note finished resonating through the hall about twenty-five of us (a mix of jazz band, choir and staff) jumped in taxis and headed over to hear “Warm Daddy” swing.
It had been quite a while since I heard Wes play. He recently had a massive stroke (his second) and I had heard talk that his motor skills had been severely compromised. Well, I have to say that despite not having one-hundred percent of the fluent technique that he had, he absolutely did not lose an ounce of his soul, swing, clarity of ideas, and just plain Wes. It was amazing to look around the club and see several of the choral singers, many of whom are trained in opera, and very little involvement with jazz, to be in there swinging with Wes and the rest of us. It was an wonderful bonding experience.
We just got off an 11-hour drive from Dallas to St. Louis. Fortunately we have the night off - an opportunity to recharge our batteries.
Tomorrow morning I am going to a grade-school to talk about music and jazz to 160 kids. And I am looking forward to it!