Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship fuses beats into Christmas album liturgy
“My vision for this recording is to create a musical journey through the deeper themes of the Christmas narrative. Using ancient canticles, hymns, and folk melodies, I chose 11 pieces to formulate a layered chronology that illustrates the profound, spiritual mystery of the radical biblical story of the birth of Christ.”
Released on Oct. 25, 2012, Song Of Simeon: A Christmas Journey takes Christian liturgy on a most holy night, and splurges with jazz texture throughout the story of the birth and promise of Jesus Christ.
With Christmas music, artists, songwriters, and arrangers tend to play it safe between appropriate (boring) church homilies and cheap (whoring out Santa for the aesthetically atheist masses) holiday pop.
Atlanta saxophonist Will Scruggs put together a special recording team to go deeper than that for Christmas. The take-away is that of sitting with loved ones in church witnessing the actual birth of Christ through this two-part jazz program. This is no fly-by-night Christmas album.
Scruggs’ father is the Reverend C. Perry Scruggs Jr., who provided the backstory and the body of the Christmas journey, which follows Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus into the world, the lowliest of shepherds heralding the birth of the Savior, and Jesus’ love coursing throughout as prophesized and distilled in the glory taken by Simeon, waiting for the promised day before dying. Through a mix of obscure, well-known, and even ethnically inclined holiday period pieces, the Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship quietly, but expertly navigates a complex series of musical channels in the telling of this story of hope and redemption. They seek not only to imagine the feeling of the moments of the Christmas journey, but to match the biblical verses with the music exactly.
Part I: The Glory brings about God’s promise to His people of a Savior in the Nativity scene, and Part II: The Light, brings forth that Savior as “A light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel. [Luke 2:32]”
The “Song Of Simeon — Nunc Dimittis” arrives almost toward the end of Part I, upon which the entire premise of the Christmas journey rests. Simeon awaited the birth of the Savior, as had been promised by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also promised Simeon that he will not die before he laid eyes on the Savior himself, which he did when Mary and Joseph brought the baby into the temple for purification as the first-born son under Jewish law [Luke 2: 22–28]. Simeon recognized baby Jesus as the Savior and rejoiced.
This piece plays similarly to an introduction of sorts, with the teasing but arched piano falling in a line of notes over themselves as the sax trails a far-off melody, as if the Holy Spirit waits in the distance for Simeon to see the Savior then come home. The 6/4 groove commences a big band jazz jaunt by Brian Hogans on piano, the bass line by Tommy Sauter, and the rest of the easy-moving rhythm section (drummer Marlon Patton, percussionist Kinah Boto Ayah), heightened with a Will Scruggs horn arrangement awash over everything.
Like everything else, Scruggs put a lot of thought into the rhythm section that would fly with his vision. He used familiar, trusted, and creative players — Patton, Sauter, Hogans, guitarist Dan Baraszu — and trusted Patton’s recommendation to add to the beats with Ayah. “Although I had never worked with Kinah before, I knew his handmade ‘Ayah Drums’ would add depth to the ensemble sound, and his creative contributions had a major impact to the project.” Multi-instrumentalist Hogans took a break from touring and playing alto sax, to take on the heart and soul of the project, the piano, which covered the melodies of the songs of Simeon like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s day.
“Song Of Simeon” takes time, a spiritual luxury during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, made even less significant by the commercialism of emotion for a quick buck. The holidays are liable to make anyone turn into a Scrooge, feeling incredibly overwhelmed with a mounting To-Do list and the unanswerable, “Is any of this really worth it?” It’s hard, almost impossible, to force oneself away from the rat race to detox, unplug, and unwind. Everywhere, the signs of Christmas consumerism are never far away.
Christmas music is one of the few luxuries worth taking a break for. Not many Christmas albums fulfill the spirit’s need for rest and sense of completion. This one will. It’s the best kind of Christmas service, where every biblical verse with every jazz note contains so much meaning — held in the breaths and the pauses taken and refrained. Every so often, an Afro-Cuban beat will send up a surprised Hallelujah!
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” leaves the safety — and predictability — of its melodic home in delicate piano, guitar, and horn splendor before giving way to some ferocious, dramatic beats brought on by the fearless percussionists in “The Annunciation — Gabriel’s Message,” a calm before the welcome storm.
In those Afro-Cuban beats, the Jazz Fellowship wraps up all its hopes and dreams on a Savior who crosses every color barrier, who defies physical and culturally-bound expectations, who can be anybody the beloved imagines. In choosing to present the coming of the Savior with distinctly African beats, the Fellowship opens up salvation to all — not just a chosen few with a white complexion and a Jewish throughline.
If Will Scruggs wrote “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” there’d be a lot more excitement at the thought of yet another group of Carolers going door to door. Scruggs did blessedly arrange and harmonize his version, heavy on the minor keys, and based on Luke 2: 8–20, when shepherds outside Bethlehem saw an angel of the Lord proclaim the coming of the Christ child. The key to understanding this interpretation is to know that, in those days, shepherds were considered the lowest class of society. They were the ones God sent an angel to, though, not the high and mighty of society. In doing so, God scared the shepherds who weren’t used to such favor. The “rest” part of this carol is the encouragement not to be afraid, hold onto courage and faith, and believe. Scruggs’ selection of a full-on, straight-ahead, bumping piece signifies that angel’s widening of those receiving God’s blessing; not for just a select few, Israel, but everyone — especially the lowly and the struggling.
The Jazz Fellowship selected the last song in Part I: The Glory, “Go Down, Moses,” from an African-American spiritual, based on Exodus 6: 5–11, calling to mind America’s own shameful slave history and the civil unrest thereafter. Scruggs’ arrangement also calls to mind the Louis Armstrong version with the Sy Oliver Orchestra in 1958, replacing the choir for the horn chorale and the lead vocals with trumpeter Joe Gransden.
In bringing up the 1920s razzle-dazzle tone in the horns, as one sax cuts through the fancy clutter with some bone-chilling soul, Scruggs draws comparisons to Israelites under Egyptian rule with the blacks under white rule.
“This story becomes even more powerful in the setting of the old Spiritual, sung by Black American slaves who faithfully sought — and ultimately won — deliverance from their own oppression. This message reminds us that Christmas represents God’s promise throughout history to offer justice, freedom, and peace for all people, especially those who are the least powerful.”
Part II: “The Light” relieves the building tension of God’s promise with the reward to humankind in the Savior’s salvation. The music is considerably freer, lighter, and plays around a little looser within known and beloved jazz circles, such as in “We Three Kings [Matthew 2: 1–12],” based on John Henry Hopkins Jr.’s 1800s “Three Kings Of Orient.” Light is everywhere in this eighth track, as the musicians float between 5/4 and 3/4 under a taut tempo and swinging interludes. Brian Hogans really fulfills his end of the bargain, as he sweeps his piano notes across the room, while percussionist Kinah Boto Ayah finishes the segment boldly, as if watching the Three Wise Men — picture three of the baddest, toughest, coolest young A-listers in Hollywood — hustle over to the baby Jesus with a mission, a purpose, and fire in their sandals. His finish will leave goosebumps. The remake is completely contemporary, yet the message remains holy untouched.
Glory to the bass commanding the time and the tenure in “T’was In The Moon Of Wintertime (The Huron Carol),” a 16th century French Folk melody, “Une Jeune Pucelle,” with English lyrics by Jesse Edgar Middleton of the 1800s-early 1900s. This is Scruggs’ sending an angelic choir of big, boss groove artists to serenade the baby Jesus and the humble few around him. The guitar-and-piano tease builds up to an excruciatingly euphoric point.
Almost the last song of Simeon, “Ideo Gloria” is beyond deep. The 16th century hymn from Piae Cantiones splits into three suites, in a fine-mesh overlay. The percussive thrust is beyond earth-bound. “Ideo Gloria’s” haunting melody inspired the recording. It’s all Will Scruggs in the Afro-Cuban-kissed arrangement.
When I sat down to write this review, I’d run out of time doing holiday-related tasks on a sleep-deprived budget. I thought about putting it off till tomorrow, then the next day, maybe even taking a holiday break altogether just to get stuff done for a tradition I’d long ago fell out of favor with. I’d lost the meaning of Christmas amidst my own To-Do list, mostly for other people. This 2012 album by the Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship took me into its two-part Christmas journey through the “Song Of Simeon,” biblically based no less, and had me happily lost in a timeless embrace of jazz and liturgy.
Scruggs’ Jazz Fellowship does Christmas music and Christmas meaning enormous justice, without sacrificing the holiday feel or the traditional roots. Scruggs as an arranger and player also manages to pervade the impersonal symbolism, parable, and far-reaching mystery of the Christian ethos with a deeper, satisfying sense of feeling, belonging, being, and understanding, through his culturally, historically aware perceptions, in the perfect music form: jazz liturgy.
His “Song Of Simeon” is a huge source of accomplishment and pride, as it should be. After having birthed other people’s music, raising up their performances and recordings (Dave Brubeck Quartet, Natalie Cole, Cee Lo Green, John Cowan) for so long, his is long overdue.
“Song Of Simeon: A Christmas Journey” rises above the usual packaged holiday barter, to give real meaning to a world bombarded with empty, Hallmark card platitudes. Listening to this dense, layered album takes time. But it’s worth every second.
Review first appeared in Examiner Dec. 4, 2013.