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Reconciling Latin and Jazz: a Q&A

Ars Nova revisits Will Todd’s Mass in Blue on February 18

In preparation for Ars Nova’s virtual premiere of Made Cool, Executive Director Kimberly Brody caught up with Artistic Director Tom Morgan about this swinging approach to a traditional Latin mass:

Kim Well, here we are facing another period during which much of the choral world has been shuttered from rehearsing and performing. What have you been working on?

Tom This has definitely been a challenging time to be in the “people-sharing-same-space-expelling-air” business. It’s hard to think of singing as a dangerous activity, but we’re in an era of an airborne respiratory virus as contagious as the measles. Some professional ensembles have been able to navigate it by keeping their singers within a fairly controlled “bubble,” but Ars Nova draws singers from across the metro-area community, and that has made it very challenging to continue to sing together safely, at times of high community transmission.

But despite not gathering our singers for rehearsals, I’ve been busy. We have quite a catalogue of performance recordings, and I’ve identified several that I’ve wanted to assemble, re-package, and release to our audiences and the broader community. Will Todd’s jazz-based “Mass in Blue” is one of them, and we have an excellent recording of it from a memorable, really electrifying 2018 concert…

Kim A jazz Mass? How does that work?

Tom It’s a good question. There aren’t a lot of great examples of really successful “crossover” music; too often one genre or the other is under-represented. To put it another way, a piece might be very good choral music but not be very good jazz, or conversely, the composer might be really good at jazz, but not understand the chorus well. I’ve experienced some of this in the past, with music by jazz masters such as Duke Ellington and Vince Guaraldi…excellent jazz, but the choral writing just doesn’t measure up.

In this case, though, English composer Will Todd has accomplished the rare feat of a great integration of both mediums, and the result is very gratifying for both performers and listeners. Todd sang in a church choir from an early age and became familiar with many settings of the Mass in the classical tradition, so he knows the chorus well, and it shows in his choral writing.

Kim  But that’s pretty far removed from the Palestrina Mass we performed during our October 2021 Made Perfect program…

Tom For sure, and I think our singers and audiences appreciate the variety of sound, aesthetics, and genres we offer. We’ve done two Palestrina masses in the last few years, and both require a “Renaissance” sound: straighter tone, pure intonation, long, flowing lines. Todd’s jazz mass requires a wider spectrum of vocal sounds and agility, and that variety can be both a challenge and a heck of a lot of fun. As we’ve noted at times in the past, in Ars Nova we are largely acoustic thrill-seekers, and this applies to both finding performance venues that enhance what we do, as well as finding repertoire that explores a wide range of choral and vocal sounds.

Headshot Image for Kimberly Brody

Kimberly Brody

Executive Director

Kim grew up in Minnesota (land of the 25 below and blizzards!), attended St. Olaf College as a music performance major, and pursued graduate studies at Northwestern University. After a…

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Headshot Image for Thomas Edward Morgan

Thomas Edward Morgan

Founder, Artistic Director, Conductor

Recognized as a “many-splendored musician” (The Boulder Daily Camera) and leading interpreter of new choral music, Thomas Edward Morgan has led the evolution of Ars Nova Singers from a local…

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Kim Speaking of wide range of sounds, Ars Nova is recognized for its list of renowned collaborators over the years, from the Kronos Quartet to the Colorado Saxophone Quartet to one of the world’s finest violinists, Ed Dusinberre of the Takács Quartet. Could you share a bit about the collaborators on this project?

Tom One of the great joys of what I do is being able to work with some spectacular collaborators! For this project, we had a wonderful guest vocal soloist, soprano Kathryn Radakovich. An incredibly versatile singer now based in Philadelphia, she’s had great success across many genres, both as a soloist and a professional ensemble singer. We also had an outstanding trio, with Scott Martin on piano; Mark Diamond on bass; and Russ Meissner on drums…all amazing players with extensive experience. They really made this project come to life. They all had complete command of the material, which is a challenge in this piece, as it is fully notated. Even though the composer leaves room for interpretation and improvisation, it is much more specifically structured than most jazz works.

Two other collaborators I must mention in this project are our location recording engineer Glenn Short and our mastering engineer David Glasser of Airshow Mastering. Glenn captured the live performance magnificently, and David really brought out the nuances and detail. David has some of the most refined aural skills I’ve ever witnessed; he’s an inspiring artist in his own right. This is not just my opinion: he has two Grammy awards sitting in his studio!

Kim And then there’s the video component, too.

Tom Yes, video; that’s another whole story! I’ve dabbled in photography and videography for many years, but at the beginning of the pandemic I invested a fair amount of time in learning how to edit video, and it’s been an enjoyable and fascinating (though often lonely!) journey. Humans process visual information so differently and at such a greater rate of speed than auditory input. Balancing these modalities and leading listeners/viewers into different perspectives on our choral world has proven to be a fulfilling artistic outlet for me. There can be poetry in both pixels and counterpoint.

 

Made Cool premieres Friday, February 18, 2022 at 7:30pm. The virtual recorded performance is offered free of charge.

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