Jazz doesn’t always have to go over your head. Sometimes, really good jazz goes straight to your heart.
The best artists know this intrinsically.
The first instrumental composition comes from pianist Samuel Barber’s 1953 Hermit Songs, and it’s a pin-drop stunner — “The Crucifixion,” as translated by Howard Mumford Jones.
Gifted with a grant from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Barber wrote 10 songs for voice and piano based on a collection of anonymous poems by 8th-13th century Irish monks and scholars, then translated by W.H. Auden, Seán Ó Faoláin, Chester Kallman, Kenneth H. Jackson, and Jones, a poet, historian, and journalist.
From the first notes, Grant and Matheny immediately transported me to the darkest hour at the birth of Christianity, the day Jesus died for mankind.
It’s one thing to read the original poem of an anonymous monk:
“At the cry of the first bird
They began to crucify Thee, O Swan!
Never shall lament cease because of that.
It was like the parting of day from night.
Ah, sore was the suffering borne
By the body of Mary’s Son,
But sorer still to Him was the grief
Which for His sake
Came upon His Mother.”
It’s quite another to feel that pain firsthand, from the perspective of those who loved Jesus, the man and the Christ: the mother who watched him suffer at the hands of strangers, the disciples who grew to depend on the living God for their salvation, the outcasts and misfits who received such salvation.
Through the tender, almost holy touch of these two modern-day prophets, I felt pain — not just from the perspective of biblical figures, but my own.
It’s the difference between reading about grace and living it, scrolling through another “American Idol” audition on your smart phone, and experiencing Oleta Adams on “When Love Comes To The Rescue” [Evolution] live.
As a piano player, Grant has a larger musical vocabulary at his disposal than Matheny. Yet, this historical tune narrows their focus in the most wonderful way, limiting their options to only what matters most. One wrong choice, a few too many stacked notes, and the performance quickly turns into a self-conscious free-for-all.
I imagine they must rely a great deal on their own innate skills as intuitive musicians to convey the emotions felt from the poem and the subsequent translations.
Their choices reveal their own generous spirits, as they convey a greater love — a recognition and then acknowledgement — through their touch. They touch their instruments as they would touch a loved one, with deep understanding and empathy.
“The Crucifixion” makes an unforgettable first impression, and sets the intimate tone for the rest of the 10 covers of spirituals and jazz standards by singular legends such as Thelonious Monk (“Think Of One”), Duke Ellington (“Fleurette Africaine,”) and that nifty medley of “Nature Boy” and Sting’s “Fragile.”
Instead of losing momentum, this longtime duo continues to sustain the intimate, empathic details of touch over flash, a few well-chosen lines that speak to the heart rather than showing off muscular runs and chord stomping.
“Think Of One” stumbles along on a jocular path, sometimes over one another. But that’s alright, the heart’s still there.
When the duo settles in on the slower movements, they reign supreme, as on the intro of “Around The World Suite,” the next one in the set list.
The ballads allow them a solidarity and singularity of purpose, starting from ground zero — intimacy born of profound feeling — and springing off into happy, jaunty moods, as in the grand American jazz tradition of instrumental conversation, trading riffs, borrowing snippets of pop culture (is that the springy, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket?” Matheny’s toying with?).
Matheny’s cuts into “Agua de Beber” breathe new life to Jobim as Grant noodles and tinkers around on his “Allemande” classical Bach casing in “Bach To Brazil.”
The “Spirituals” medley ends the album as “The Crucifixion” begins, with heart and soul in the vibrant touch of chamber jazz. Grant lets his hands run a little wild and floral, somber to euphoric on “Deep River,” “Wade In The Water,” “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Matheny tones down Grant’s Mozart-like classical bursts with warm, intimate tones that rekindle the somber spirit of salvation from the first track. Although, he does get to warble along mischievously on a ragtime slide toward the end.
As a musical conversation, the two are well-balanced: Grant’s the talkative one full of ideas and plans to Matheny’s underlying feel-good moods ready to light fire, the laughter in the middle of a joke, the hand on the shoulder during a quiet, trying time.
Grant and Matheny first made waves in 1996 at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City, performing their own intimate, warm chamber jazz. They would go on to perform many more shows, developing an easy camaraderie bordering on jazz variety vaudeville, featuring music and personal stories.
These two go beyond the charts to play what they feel. Anyone can play the notes as written, throw in a few improvised runs and flurries for show, then call it good.
But these two do more than play. They touch their instruments as if the piano and the flugelhorn are living, breathing beings.