At Spirituality Liverpool we appreciate the power of music and its role in sacred practices including worship, chant, awakening and healing through sound. Jazz is just one of the genres of music that can hold and convey the sacred dimension is especially interesting because of its degrees of spontaneity and improvisation.
An aspect of spirituality is responsiveness to a moment-by-moment awakened awareness of the divine. Of course this can be described in various ways depending on culture and tradition. In the Christian tradition one of the key transitions that it seems Jesus both lived and taught is the transition from a fixed law and belief way of life to one that is more responsive and dynamic to the Spirit. Here “the Spirit” is that dynamic mysterious creative Presence of God described by Jesus as being like a wind. The way of the wind (and fire!) was experienced (according to Luke in Acts) by the disciples as they gathered to wait at what is now called ‘Pentecost’. It brought about creative transformations as people experienced the divine for themselves and saw its repercussions in opening up communication and understanding between diverse peoples. And they sang – music was involved. One can imagine the spontaneous ecstatic singing in the flow of these experiences.
Jazz has this component to it, the sacred dimension, the way of the wind. Of course jazz can be many other things too but it holds this as a possibility.
One contemporary example of jazz that explores hits sacred dimension is the music of Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen. His latest album is What Was Said, played as a trio featuring Afghan-German singer Simin Tander and fellow countryman Jarle Vespestad on drums. Exploring an alchemic blend of Sufi and Christian sacred hymns, Norwegian folk songs and seminal American Beat poetry, interwoven with subtle electronics and jazz improvisation, it’s Gustavsen’s most bewitchingly beautiful work to date. His earlier works too have a strong spiritual quality and if you hear him live you can feel the palpable spiritual quality to the performance; the music is mystically divine.
Of this latest album which is unusual in having a vocalist (Simin Tander) sometimes singing in Afghan Pashto Gustavsen says: “the music must speak for itself and transmit whatever energy, whatever sensuality or spirit there is without knowing the background”. The album prior to this one was Extended Circle which incorporates tunes inspired by chorales and spirituals. These were developed collectively and gradually integrated into the repertoire as the group toured. The album title aso refers to the view of things not being linear,” says Gustavsen. “The modernistic notion of linear progress is dead... But still we want to move in creative circles or spirals, coming back to musical and spiritual issues from ever-new angles, developing the musical approach or ideology with – hopefully – a deeper insight, a deeper set of experiences and skills.”
This brings me back to jazz. It seems to me that jazz is able in these creative circles or spirals and be responsive to the moment, to ‘way of the wind’. Tord Gustavsen says it this way: “I like to have intensity and concentration. In my daily life, I need to have emotional intensity, elegance and space, and I need a lot of breathing space in my music. So this duality between raw intensity and elegance, or intensity and space, has to be there on both levels, as a person and as a musician. And I guess some of that will reflect on how we play and how we approach the instruments, and also on the unconscious signals we send from the stage. It is a very powerful thing when I feel that the audience is willing to go with us on that journey and enter that kind of musical meditation. That's when I feel that our concerts are really meaningful.”
Musical meditation, that’s it, the quality that come through the music of Tord Gustavsen. And also a sense of devotion. Listen again: “To me, there’s a strong connection on a personal level. I feel it’s important to dig into what’s lying deep in one’s musical self in order to play “organic” jazz, and that may involve getting in touch with music sung, played and/or listened to during childhood. Growing up, I had a lot of hymns and spirituals along with lullabies and children’s songs in my home, and so this music is crucial in making up my musical foundation. It’s best to reach out and explore from a nurturing and caressing foundation. Also, there is of course a strong link between spirituals and jazz in music history; both European hymns and African American spirituals were among the important musical traditions present in the melting pot area where “jazz” was formed. Contemporary jazz that moves too far away from the devotional feel — with or without an explicitly spiritual emphasis — has a tendency to lose its appeal to me. I do love a lot of complex, hard core, intriguing music… but there is something about uplifting and profound grooves and about essential, simplistic sensualism in creative improvisation and melodying … these things are spiritual to me, and they are core elements of the music I cherish the most.”
Tord Gustavsen is on an extensive tour with his current trio in 2016 and is in the UK during March.