There have been countless jazz masses and gospel-jazz recordings, with some iconic and influential recordings among them including Mary Lou Williams' Black Christ of the Andes (1963), Donald Byrd's A New Perspective from 1964, Duke Ellington's 1965 Sacred Music Concert, and Dave Brubeck's Truth Is Fallen from 1972, to name a few. Add to this prestigious legacy Eri Yamamoto's Goshu Ondo Suite, her first work for chorus and jazz trio recorded by her longtime group with the 50-voice Choral Chameleon directed by Vince Peterson. Yamamoto came to choral composition by accident. Vacuuming her apartment one day, she was humming the first two lines of "Goshu Ondo" in time to the machine's rhythm. It is a traditional circle dance tune from Shiga near Kyoto, where she spent summers as a child. The light went on. She decided on the spot to write a choral piece based on the song. She spent three months composing longhand in a notebook, then sent a demo to Peterson. Before hearing it, he agreed to undertake it: He trusted Yamamoto's instincts based on her trio recordings. It took another three months to develop the work for performance. The unique lyrical qualities she possesses as a composer serve her well here. She reimagines the centuries-old Japanese song through her own story as a child singing and dancing to it on the shores of Lake Biwa, and as a professional musician in New York City, all refracted through the twin creative lenses of modern jazz and choral music.
Recorded during its November 2018 premier and issued by AUM Fidelity, the first movement introduces the choir a cappella before Yamamoto's elliptical playing -- with assistance from bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi -- adds dimension, the trio illuminates the singers whose use of a celebratory chant is sung in staggered rounds to a processional tempo. In the second movement, swinging post-bop frames the singers who syncopate with the trio. In "Part Four," interlocking cadences between choir and trio -- amid booming tom-toms, kick drums, and a ceremonial snare all pulsed by both the piano and bassline -- become entwined harmonic and rhythmic expressions. In the fifth part, the trio follows Yamamoto's hard-swinging lyrical investigations down a rabbit hole. Choral Chameleon comes in to get them at the four-minute mark and the tune explodes with transcendent joy. The seventh movement, rife with funky grooves, finds Yamamoto digging deep into soulful blues in a taut exchange with the choir. Closing section "Echo of Echo" is an airy, instrumental folk-like ballad that traces through nursery rhymes and gospel music. It features agile bass work from Ambrosio and stellar brush work from Takeuchi. In its entirety, Goshu Ondo Suite is brilliant music-making and equates with the now-classic works cited above. This work's musical quality balances inspiration, harmonic sophistication, and emotional and spiritual depth. Further, Yamamoto offers listeners an openness and receptivity while showcasing a complete unwillingness to engage in compositional artifice for its own sake.