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Jazz Mass is a collaborative project Rick Bean and I composed beginning in 2015 for the sole purpose of bringing classical choral and working jazz musicians together. Often when a choral group sings jazz, it’s performed with the group’s regular accompanist and a soloist from within the group. This work asks choirs to invite community jazz artists into a partnership of equals.
James Kevin Gray is a native South Carolinian and a graduate of Winthrop University, where he studied under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Edgerton. Kevin has taught in public schools as well as on the collegiate level as the director of the Winthrop University Jazz Voices. He is a published composer under the Paraclete Press and Oxford University Press labels. From 2013-2016 Kevin served as Conductor and Artistic Director of the Charlotte Chorale, and in 2015 founded Power of Song, a collaborative musical initiative. Most recently he held the position of interim director of Carolina Voices' Mainstage Choir and presently serves as the Minister for Worship and Music at St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. Kevin resides in nearby Rock Hill, SC with his wife, Alison, and son, Mason.
The evolution of Jazz Mass began at a concert reception for a work I’d composed. Rick Bean was there and we connected when we realized we’d both been associated with the Winthrop University Jazz Voices program in the ‘90s. Rick brought up the possibility of collaborating on a piece of music; soon after, we met for coffee and began laying the groundwork for Jazz Mass.
We chose a mass setting because it’s a recognizable long-form choral genre. We also felt that the loose translations of the mass text lent themselves beautifully to our mission.
After deciding what movements of the mass to include and how the text would be translated, we then worked on one or two movements at a time. Rick and I composed Lennon/McCartney style, where a movement’s main theme was usually written by one of us, and then we’d both work out transitions, instrumentation, and voice leading together.
The instrumentation includes all the elements of a small jazz ensemble: piano, bass, drums, saxophone, and vocal soloist – in this context, a “chamber orchestra” of jazz instruments. Not every movement includes all instruments; the Credo, for instance doesn’t include the piano but is driven by the bass. Some movements, such as the Kyrie, depend heavily on the vocal soloist, while others, like Glory to God, highlight the chorus in gospel style.
Rick and I hope that Jazz Mass can provide musicians from different paths the opportunity to share musical disciplines and to impart to the listener a willingness to embrace diversity.