“Wow, leaves you speechless doesn’t it! Follow that!”
Aled Jones, BBC Radio 3 The Choir
“A beguiling work that blends jazz and choral singing…an addictive listen.”
Marcus Dunk, Daily Express
“Plenty to please listeners who appreciate skilful and entertaining writing…the Vasari Singers perform impeccably.”
Barry Witherden, The Gramophone
- Conductor: Jeremy Backhouse
- Pianist: Will Todd
- Soloists: Bethany Halliday (Mass in Blue), Fiona McWilliams
Tracks 1-6 produced by Will Todd
Tracks 7-14 produced by Adrian Peacock
Released by Signum, September 2006
- Recorded at The Warehouse, London, February 2006
- Recorded in 24-bit resolution
Will Todd’s Mass in Blue
This work has now achieved full stature
“The riveting new CD of Mass in Blue brought out by Vasari Singers recorded in the relatively sharp acoustics of The Warehouse, SE1…
…superb playing capped only by the Vasari Singers’ final exultant “credo” outburst…
…due credit must go to the Vasari Singers’ conductor Jeremy Backhouse for his masterful command of general ensemble across an amazing fusion of jazz/ classical styles, not to mention the tricky cross rhythms throughout…
…The Mass in Blue recording really amazed me with its sheer clarity of sound, superb pace and impact in all respects. This work has now achieved full stature, I feel. Will Todd, one of Britain’s most talented young composers.”
4 Stars – highly recommended
The prolific output of British composer Will Todd (Born 1970) includes many choral works alongside operas and oratorios. Here the Mass in Blue (in which the choir is joined by a jazz combo) is complemented by some tuneful and predominantly meditative choral miniatures, many originally written for amateur or young performers. The melding of the Latin Mass and jazz styles may not be to everybody’s taste, but the result is vibrant and colourful and is performed with vitality and commitment.
British composer Will Todd’s 2003 “Mass in Blue” follows in the tradition of Dave Brubeck’s jazz-tinged oratorios, but is even more uncompromising in its use of “pure” jazz, with very little influence from the classical tradition. If it were not for the use of a chorus, any of the movements would be indistinguishable from the vocal blues that could be heard in the best clubs. In fact, the chorus often sings in unison, as if standing in for a soloist. The “Mass” also uses a soloist, soprano Bethany Halliday, whose creamy voice shines especially in the Agnus Dei, and she more than holds her own in her improvisatory expertise. The Vasari Singers, led by Jeremy Backhouse, are known primarily for their virtuosic performances of some of the most challenging contemporary music, but they are perfectly at ease in this idiom; they make choral jazz sound like it ought to be an established tradition. Todd’s setting is imaginative, unpredictable, and full of irrepressible energy. The CD also contains eight of his settings of English and Latin liturgical and religious texts, some a cappella and some accompanied, in the contemporary classical tradition. The richness of his harmonies and his idiomatic choral writing show Todd’s mastery of this style, but his compositional voice here is less distinctive and compelling than in the “Mass.”
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.
WILL TODD’S Mass In Blue is a curious yet beguiling work that blends jazz and classical choral singing to stunning effect. Although it’s a bit odd hearing the Kyrie and Agnus Dei sounding like something that could be drifting out of a smoky speakeasy, once you get over the shock, it’s an addictive listen.
Jazz goes to church, for a Mass in Blue, praise the Lord
Liturgical jazz is nothing new: there have been worthy, if not particularly inspiring, sacred works by several accomplished jazz composers, including Jack Reilly, Michael Garrick, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington. Will Todd’s Mass in Blue, premiered in 2003 as Jazz Mass, is a very creditable addition to the genre but, like its predecessors, provides little in the way of musical epiphanies or Damascene revelations.
That said, it is an enjoyable listen. Todd clearly loves and understands jazz, qualities which don’t always go together in classically trained musicians professing an interest in what most dictionaries still hopelessly, inadequately and obsoletely define as garish, strongly-rhythmic, syncopated dance music. He does not use jazz forms and accents merely as exotic colourings but embraces their spirit and vibrancy. As a pianist, showcased especially well in the cadenza which opens the Kyrie and in the Sanctus, Todd is a respectable, workmanlike mainstream-modern player. There’s nothing to discommode anyone unwilling to come to terms with the developments of the past 50 years in jazz (or the past 95 years in classical music) but plenty to please listeners who appreciate skilful and entertaining writing. Todd is well served by the brass, reed and rhythm ensemble that joins the Vasari Singers for the Mass, and soprano Bethany Halliday solos with conviction.
The balance of the programme, with Todd accompanying on some tracks, comprises modest but effective settings of various psalms, poems and hymns. Mostly commissioned for school and church choirs, they are object lessons in economy and clarity which the Vasari Singers perform impeccably.
Wow, leaves you speechless doesn’t it! Follow that!
Jamming away there were the Vasari Singers, with Soprano Bethany Halliday, fabulous voice, in the final movement, the agnus dei, from Will Todd’s Mass in Blue.
Not an easy thing to do to get a choir to swing convincingly, as I’m sure Ken Burton would agree, but the Vasari Singers, and conductor Jeremy Backhouse make a fantastic job of it on that Signum recording. Helped along by the composer himself on the piano, accompanied by a fine line up of Jazz musicians.
Back in 2004, musicOMH.com reported on Will Todd’s extraordinary Mass in Blue, performed at the Barbican by the Hertfordshire Chorus, who commissioned the work in 2003 (here).
Now the piece has been given a well-deserved recording by the multi-talented Vasari Singers under their conductor Jeremy Blackhouse, so those of us that haven’t been lucky enough to hear a live performance can now understand what all the fuss has been about.
Blending jazz and blues styles with largely well-written solid choral writing, the Mass in Blue wears its eclecticism lightly. Expression is the main priority, and Todd – who appears in the recording as the solo pianist – employs whatever style seems right for the text and the moment, rather than showing off his compositional virtuosity just for the sake of it. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how structured the work is, considering its jazzy surface: the Mass is a legitimate entry into the choral repertoire.
As the liner notes say, the opening Kyrie eleison is reminiscent of a negro spiritual, and the Vasari Singers give it an edge of pain and contrition as the words (‘Lord, have mercy’) suggest. Todd uses blues-style harmonies to flatten chords, and the jazz trio group (Todd on piano, Jim Fleeman on drums and Gareth Huw on double bass) punctuates the choral sections. Soprano Bethany Halliday is a remarkably versatile musician, lending her operatic full tone to this more laidback and loose idiom in her entries over the choir.
The Gloria is a very successful blend of the ‘classical’ and the ‘popular’. A unison beginning from the choir introduces the other instrumentalists, including a prominent saxophone. The choir builds impressively to more harmonically complex lines, whilst the middle section is a nimble counterpoint between the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus in 5/8 time. Brass entries throughout provide the golden thread that holds the movement together.
There’s an irresistible gospel approach to the Credo, which is led with panache by Halliday (though I find her Latin a bit stretched). The Vasari Singers provide a solid background, and Todd’s piano accompaniment is inspired. The centre of the movement describes the Crucifixion of Christ in more solemn tones, and there’s a brilliant contrapuntal section before the return of the blues in the final section.
Translucence of sound characterises the poignant Sanctus, which relies heavily on the higher voices for purity of sound. The soprano saxophone again adds a special piquancy; this is the most emotional part of the work as a whole. Yet the Benedictus is powerful in a quite different way, making a journey from near-silence to high exuberance, and Halliday once more helps lead the way, her vocals showing great flexibility of range. And though the concluding Agnus Dei is too complex to describe in detail here, it suffices to say that both choir and solo soprano top their excellent performance with an unexpected shift from sombre prayer to a return to the stirring Credo music, ending on a high point.
The CD is generously filled out with a range of short works written by Todd over a number of years for various reasons. These include a simple but elegant prayer, Lead Me Lord, written for the chapel choir of Durham School in 1997, and None Other Lamb, a setting of a Christina Rossetti poem from 1998.
Performances are excellent throughout, and the music becomes more absorbing on every playing. Fans of high-quality choral singing should not miss the opportunity to grab this with both hands as soon as possible.
The Vasari Singers perform a programme entitled ‘Radical Masses’ at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 26 September 2006, including Will Todd’s Mass in Blue and Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli.
From the moment Gounod published the big beat Credo of his Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile the affinity between the cadences of the latin mass and modern rhythmic music became apparent.
With his Mass in Blue Will Todd seizes these opportunities with gusto in a work of considerable depth and complexity.
The introduction to the Kyrie, for piano and orchestra, is overtly reminiscent of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with just a hint of Scott Joplin, but soon the perspective opens up to display a myriad of influences.
The Gloria has a simple plainchant opening before the voice of the soprano soloist floats apparently effortlessly above the ensemble. Todd writes with bold simplicity for the choir, and has the confidence to introduce some highly original harmonies and tempi.
Nonetheless, he adheres faithfully to the spirit of the Tridentine Mass and the clarity of words from both choir and soloist is exemplary. The work builds up to an extended Agnus Dei and a deeply satisfying conclusion.
The London premiere performance will be at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 26 September.
Will Todd’s Mass in Blue or Jazz Mass was written in 2003 and heard at the Barbican not long afterwards/ It is an extended setting of the Mass in Jazz style throughout. As such, it is more than an interesting experiment, but is one that, I fear, is not wholly successful as a work of art. Anything is possible in art, given the twin criteria of imagination and the ability to express that imagination in artistic language, but because something can be done it does not follow that doing it guarantees success.
The Latin text of Mass, whether rendered into English or not, lies at the heart of Christian worship, meditating upon belief in affirmation and contemplation. It is concerned with the essential mystery of Christ and His teaching and surrounds the transubstantiation which is the central act of the celebration. Such profound matters are not, therefore, to be treated lightly, but, literally, reverently, soberly, and with as full a comprehension as can be mustered of what the Eucharist is about. Will Todd’s patently jazzy music, for all its attractive fluency, simply does not begin to approach the subject matter of the words. Half a century ago, Father Geoffrey Beaumont’s Folk Mass, in rock-and-roll style, caused a much bigger sensation than has Will Todd’s Mass in Blue, largely because it was more ‘up-to-date’ for its time, musically speaking, but it has vanished without trace. Neither Beaumont’s music, nor Todd’s, possesses the original, genuinely inspired and lasting qualities that the finest settings of the text have drawn from their respective composers. Frankly, Todd’s kind of jazz music as exhibited in this work could be settings of anything; the fact that it is the text of the Mass merely makes it superficially fashionable.
The other straight works here, eight short pieces, are also intermittently interesting, but my main criticism of Todd’s choral writing is that the proceeds, in jazz or straight settings, in blocks, with all singers seemingly singing at the same time; there is virtually no counterpoint, no light and shade, no chance for any section of the choir to shine at any one time; in short, no musical inspiration.
This is a pity, for I believe that Will Todd has it within him to break through in a big way. Perhaps he needs to lighten up, or relax more in his music, to permit his imagination a greater freedom over his chosen texts. Perhaps we need a Viola Concerto from him. The performances are excellent, as is the recording.