The Rochester Mass

Rochester Cathedral Choir / James Taylor Quartet

(CD - Cherry Red #CDBRED 672)

Review by Thom Jurek

Since the late '80s, keyboardist, composer, and bandleader James Taylor has been integrating the core elements of jazz-funk into as many musical settings as possible. The soul-jazz-tinged acid jazz he helped pioneer in the late '80s and throughout the 1990s has remained a central focus, but he's stretched it to embrace Motown, cinematic music, and 21st century progressive big-band sounds. Most recently, Taylor and band have been experimenting with classical music. Over the past few years, the keyboardist had been listening to French impressionist composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Delius while caring for his ailing father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. They visited Rochester Cathedral together, and Taylor found beauty and solace in the choral liturgy. He realized it would be possible to wed liturgical music to jazz-funk. He began working on this mass with the Rochester Cathedral Choir in late 2013 and performing it during the following year. The Rochester Mass was recorded at Angel Street Studios during a single summer day in 2015. Taylor expanded his quartet (bassist Andrew McKinney, guitarist Mark Cox, and drummer Pat Illingworth) to an octet with orchestral percussion, reeds, flügelhorn, and flute, supporting the 34-voice Rochester Cathedral Choir. Taylor and his collaborators have created the first jazz-funk mass in the Latin tradition. The opening "Sanctus, Pt. 1" offers a bumping bassline; chunky guitar chords; short flügelhorn, flute, and saxophone solos guided by his twinkling Rhodes (the only instrument he plays on this date); and breakbeat drums. The singers offer the words in sweet, syncopated staccato cadences, curling around one another and dropping out occasionally to make room for the music. Its second part commences as a crescendo before slipping off into an emotionally resonant drift of interlocking voices and instruments and then returning with a sense of majesty. A brief tenor and baritone vocal duet introduces the "Agnus Dei," before a shimmering Debussy-esque chorus claims the center. Soft rimshots, Rhodes, and flügelhorn gently support them, followed by a solo flute cadenza and a sunny, funky resolution that is one of the album's highlights. Another is the first part of the soulful, resonant "Gloria." Usually the "Kyrie" is a solemn part of a mass, an entreaty for Divine forgiveness and reconciliation, but here -- as in the early "Sanctus, Pt. 1" -- Taylor treats it as a true celebration. Vamping guitar and Rhodes chords, shuffling R&B drums, and a backbone-rumbling bassline adorn gorgeous fills and solos by the horns. The choir offers the elliptical chant as one firmly rooted in the earth yet offered to the heavens as a statement of faith, hope, and love. Given that Taylor has only chosen to record the choral responsorials and instrumental interludes, The Rochester Mass is only 27 minutes long, but every one of them is rife with creativity, joy, and soul-stirring warmth. In Taylor's treatment of these sacred texts, belief is not a prerequisite for enjoyment, only the willingness to experience abundance is.

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