IWS Alumni Dr. Wally Brath recently released an album of original songs and shared his story of how this jazz psalter came to be:
Growing up in the Evangelical, Free-church tradition, I didn’t sing the Psalms regularly in worship.
We would occasionally read portions of them on a Sunday morning or inadvertently sing a paraphrased version in a hymn by Isaac Watts or the Wesleys. As I journeyed with the Lord, I would encounter the Psalms as a part of my yearly Bible reading plan and began to look for ways to include them more in my personal times of worship and integrating them into worship planning for the church. The morning chapel sessions during my doctoral studies at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies modeled for me a contemporary approach to the historic practice of incorporating the Psalms in worship.
Connexion (A Jazz Psalter) had its origins as an evening festival of Psalms service on October 23, 2021. I had used the pandemic lockdown year of 2020 to write many new psalm settings. My friends Nikki and David Lerner (voice and drums), and Greg Tardy (saxophone and clarinet) joined students and faculty from the Grace College Worship Arts program, where I am a professor, to lead a beautiful vespers offering of music. I wanted to experiment with a larger ensemble while still retaining elements of jazz harmony and improvisation, so I wrote the music for piano, bass, drums, saxophone, trumpet, 3 French horns, and string quartet.
Fast forward to 2023: I was given the gift of a sabbatical from my teaching duties at Grace College and Seminary to focus on some research related to liturgy and hermeneutics, and to record the Psalms from the Vespers service of 2021. I contacted one of my musical heroes, John Patitucci, who had come to Grace College in the Fall of 2019 for a collaborative concert with my students. He graciously agreed to play bass and give direction on musicians and studio space. I flew to New York and recorded at Oktaven Studios in Yonkers on April 19 & 20, 2023, with myself on piano, Nikki Lerner on vocals, John Patitucci on bass, Adam Cruz on drums, David Lerner on drums, Alex Norris on trumpet, Jimmy Green on sax, and Ryan Streber engineering. I used many of the Psalms from the 2021 Vespers service consisting of a variety of Psalm texts from Calvin’s Genevan Psalter to settings by Isaac Watts. Later in the Summer of 2023, I added a string quartet with my wonderfully gifted wife, Shana, and friends, along with several pieces with French horn, and my dear friend and brother Greg Tardy on clarinet.
I had a few goals in mind when composing this project:
- First, I wanted the Psalm settings to be accessible to the people of God in public worship. The melodies themselves are singable and could be taught to a congregation.
- The second goal was a variety of presentations. A few of the Psalm melodies I wrote are more strophic (or hymn-like) in nature. Other of the Psalm settings have verses that are sung by the song leader and then the congregation joins in on a simpler chorus or antiphon.
- The third goal was that I wanted the Psalms to stand alone as something beautiful to listen to. The album is alive with jazz harmonies and rhythms, and orchestrations with strings and horns. I believe it is a pleasure to listen to and would enhance one’s personal devotional time.
The spelling of Connexion with the letter x is reminiscent of the early church’s abbreviation of the Greek word, Χριστός, which means Christ – the Anointed One, the Messiah.
The ending of the word – xion also reminds us of Zion in Scripture, the presence of God, his holy mountain, and a city of refuge (Jerusalem in the OT and the New Jerusalem described in Rev. 21).
Regarding the music; why pair the Psalms with jazz?
Admittedly, jazz means many things to many people. As a style, it has evolved over time and covers many sub-genres (e.g. early ragtime, big band swing, virtuosic bebop, cool jazz, fusion, et cetera.). I have been attracted to the genre because of its deep harmonic and rhythmic characteristics, as well as the conversation-like quality of improvisation. The Psalms cover an expanse of emotional ground and I believe jazz has the depth musically to match the prosody of this divine poetry. Hebrew poetry is less interested in external forms and employs a freer idea of “thought rhymes.” For example, Psalm 103:10 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” These two phrases complement each other – variations on a theme, if you will. The two phrases taken together give a much richer, more colorful description of our sin and God’s forgiveness. In the same way, jazz is able to bring a rich palette of harmonic and rhythmic textures to support the text in ways not commonly found in modern worship music.
My prayer is that this album of Psalms set to original music will meet you on your journey with Jesus Christ.
I am deeply grateful to Grace College and Seminary, where I have the pleasure to lead the worship arts program as professor, for giving me the gift of a sabbatical and the opportunity to steward the passions God has given me for worship. My prayer is that you will encounter the living Christ as you spend time with him in worship through the Psalms.
Visit wallybrathmusic.com to find out more about Wally and Connexion (A Jazz Psalter).