Album Review

Posted: Wednesday 11th October 2006
Share this:

Will Todd: Mass in Blue – Classical Music Web International

Will Todd is one of those English composers who exist at the periphery of people’s awareness. There have been several CDs – The Burning Road and St Cuthbert’s Mass – but none have drawn him closer to the centre. This should help. It’s on a well known independent label, it’s accessible, sung by one of the world’s finest choirs and the music lingers in the memory and beckons you back.

The signature piece is the Mass in Blue commissioned by David Temple and the Hertfordshire Chorus. It’s for choir plus piano, soprano, drum-kit, timps, woodwind and sax, two trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone. It had its first performance at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 12 July 2003 with Will Todd at the piano. As on this CD, his wife, Bethany Halliday, sang the soprano solo. On that occasion they were joined by The Blue Planet Orchestra and the Hertfordshire Chorus and David Temple.

I do not recall a Mass-Jazz fusion piece before. This one sticks with the latin words for the standard mass sequence: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei. It steps through the blending and shifting boundaries between tonal classical reverence, cool urban jazz and smoking blues. The essence of the swaying and volatile spiritual mediates the rough edges. The Mass is a substantial piece in which Ms Halliday – Todd’s wife, the daughter of a Baptist pastor – turns her Lamborghini of a voice loose on the music. She croons, sways and erupts, encompassing the range from metropolitan cool, foot-tapping Ella to the pyroclastic flow and blast of Mahalia Jackson (an early influence). She is heard at full tilt in the pyrotechnics of Credo. Things cool and return closer to classical comfort – say Poulenc – in the Sanctus. Even so it is mesmerisingly tugged by Todd’s smoochily relaxed piano and smilingly discreet riffs of the band and drum kit. After a steady then sprinting Benedictus comes the final Agnus Dei which opens, as does the whole work, with Todd’s bluesy solo piano. Halliday anoints the celebration with a meditative bluesy melisma that accelerates into the final three minutes. The Credo returns and the blue touch paper is lit for a ferment of jazz pyrotechnics.

There follow eight short pieces for the choir. These are in closer touch with the tonal melodic English mainstream. All are accomplished and fresh and are superbly and smoothly sung. The singing of Christus est stella (2003) takes us from singing of a honeyed aura all the way to an almost slavonic fervour. The Christ-child (1997) is piano accompanied and provides yet more balm in a deeply appealing rocking motion – populist but patently sincere. The piano appears with the voices again in Ave Verum Corpus (2001). None other lamb (1998) is for choir alone – a simple piece with no concessions to the popular taste for the catchy or the sweet. The Rose (1998) has the piano returning in quiet pulse beneath a tender melodic outline yet adding exaltation at 2.10. Lead me Lord (1997) is laid out for soprano solo (here Fiona McWilliams) and choir. This is a simple and easily picked-up melody. Writing such pieces must surely require high artistry or we would be awash with them. In the UK you might hear this in quiet consolation on programmes such as Songs of Praise. Memorably sing-song and with an easy rocking jazz piano accompaniment we then get Lighting the Way (2000). This track will be played again and again and will insinuate its way into your whistling repertoire. Jazz returns in the solo piano and in the singing of Every Stone Shall Cry. This recalls the Joseph Horovitz idiom of Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo.

All the words are printed and there’s good background on the composer and the artists.

There you have it: a Jazz Mass (more Jazz than English mainstream) and a selection of Will Todd’s enjoyable choral pieces. Choral singers and directors (church and secular) on the lookout for enriching their choirs choice should get this as should anyone who appreciates a well-turned piece of sung music that brings off the balance between accessibility and sustained creative delight.

Rob Barnett 
Classical Music Web International