Practical Organ Music–June 2015

JUNE 2015

Summertime! How easy is the livin’ in your liturgical world this time of year? Every church approaches its summer music program differently. Some churches avoid vernal variety in favor of constant consistency. Others vacate any concerns for what comes from the loft during the vacation season. I, myself, see the summer as an opportunity to make friends for the organ.
Is there such a thing as friendly liturgical music? I think so. In fact, playing congregational favorites is a much-loved tradition for many of us. We can also consider music with folk roots, such as Celtic, spirituals, and even some of the contemporary worship tunes that are seeping into the congregational song. One of the easiest ways to bring a fresh, casual sound into the summer service is through jazz-influenced hymn tunes.
If this kind of music will be new to the ears of your congregation, let me recommend Marianne Kim’s Jazz Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Lorenz 70/1883L). These are easy arrangements of familiar hymns that avoid theatre-organ clichés while introducing occasional gracious harmonic extensions. A little more challenging is an old favorite, Sacred Sounds from George Shearing (Sacred Music Press KK229). Here, you will find a wider variety of tunes with variations that go one dwarf-step into the lush harmonic world of jazz without expecting matching rhythmic sophistication.
Rhythm is what people love. Unfortunately, most of us lack any experience or training in that most basic jazz rhythm, swing. And, as the Duke (Ellington, that is) told us, “it don’t mean a thing” without it. I do have some good news for you: each of us has everything we need to learn it, and it is right there in our classical tool kit. The only thing you need to bring with you is a commitment to listen and learn. For more of my thoughts on how to learn jazz, log onto my blog:
The first Gentleman of Jazz to I would like fore you to meet is Dr. Joe Utterback ( Dr. Joe has been a passionate advocate of sacred jazz for decades, and he has a formidable catalog to explore. Let me help you get started. Sometimes abstract pieces are a good way to slip into a new sound. Take a look at his Beside Still Waters and Meditation, or his more chromatic Reverie. When you are ready to tackle something more rhythmic, look at Three Spirituals for Organ or Voluntaries for Manuals Only. He really is good at transcribing jazz rhythmic conventions into notation. You can easily apply what you learn here to other composers who are not so careful. Of course, Dr. Joe has some wonderful hymn tune arrangements as well: here are Deep River, I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, and Talk About a Child Who Do Love Jesus, available separately. A little more adventurous, are two volumes of Five New Spirituals for Organ. While Utterback’s music is a rich vein to mine, we must move on.
The second Gentleman of Jazz I want to introduce is Johannes Matthias Michel, our very own Mannheim steamroller. He first came to our attention with the publication of Organ, Timbrel and Dance (Concordia 976805). Stunning, but this is not a beginner’s piece. Much more approachable is his Gospel, Jazz, Blues and Soul (Concordia 977057 POD), containing eighteen chorale preludes circling the liturgical year. This is a very useful volume with a variety of jazz stylings that will be familiar to everyone. They are short, but easily organized into suites for longer preludes. You will find some rhythmic challenges to practice, and every one of them will help you gain the confidence to explore more. When you are ready, take a look at some of Michel’s other works, including his five-movement “Petite Suite in Blue” in Jazz Inspirations for Organ, Vol. 2 (Barenreiter BA9203) and the “Suite Jazzique” in Das Swing & Jazz Orgelbuchlein, Vol. 2 (Strube-Verlag 69054). Now this is friendly music, without deteriorating into the trite.
When it comes to jazz organ, the Germans really are our friends. Two publishers have compiled anthologies that cover a great deal of the creative writing done there in the last few years. Check out the other volumes in the Strube-Verlag Das Swing & Jazz Orgelbuchlein series. (Volume 3 is for manuals only.) Currently, Barenreiter has four volumes in their Jazz Inspirations series. They also offer some lovely pieces in L. Kunkel’s Jazz Meditations (BA 9256). There is something here for every technical level and every jazz style. Whether you offer all these in worship, you will enjoy the search, I promise!
Summertime. May your livin’ not just be easy; may it be fruitful, as well. Here at the beginning of this new season, take a moment to look ahead. What do you need to nurture your artistic nature? Rest? Exercise? Practice? Study? Travel? Yes, of course! We need variety: a variety of life experiences, and variety of musical styles. Take time to stretch your wings and enjoy the life you have been given. And, give thanks… It’s summer!

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