Friday, February 27, 2009

Musical Lent

Gavin Bryars--"Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (pt. 4)" (mp3)
Sonny Stitt--"Sonny's Blues" (mp3)
Pavement--"Here" (mp3)

I'm always a little surprised to find myself in church.

Wednesday night was no exception. With very little advance warning, I was kneeling, praying, passing the Peace, having a cross of ash put on my forehead, receiving Communion, singing, reciting, pondering--all of those things you would do during an Ash Wednesday service.

The Lenten season has always intrigued me, regardless of where I am in "my walk with the Lord" in any given year. The idea of giving something up has so many interesting possibilities, and I think almost anyone would be hard pressed to deny that sacrifice leads to self-reflection and possible growth.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that there is a bit of a competition concerning one's Lenten vows. My pal who normally gives up chocolate has given up Coke this year. That gets a big ho-hum. I get the denial of pleasure aspect of giving up chocolate, but don't you want your Lenten vow to draw a gasp of surprise and/or admiration for its sheer scope or audacity? "I'm giving up sex," you might say. "I've just been doing it too much and enjoying it too much." And your friends would gaze at you with a knowing nod that hides their jealousy.

But as I am often a neophyte in all things Christian, the concept of taking something on, rather than giving something up, has only come into my viewfinder in recent years. And, with this blog, and with my feelings about music, "taking something on" seems like the natural and good thing to do this Lenten season.

Why not declare a kind of musical Lent, where I take on the duty of presenting elevating music that brings a listener closer to God? Why, yes, I can try to do that.

And so, I present, for the next (now) 38 days a selection of songs that, in my opinion, aim above the stratosphere in their ambitions, that promote a contemplation of God or larger things, that offer a profound beauty not constrained by traditional forms, that free the mind to ponder.

To get caught up, I offer songs I've been listening to lately now that I've got 97% of my CD collection sorted out and back into the fold. The first, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, by Gavin Bryars, features an entire orchestral piece built around a snippet of a homeless man (tramp) singing a slightly-off-key song:

Jesus' blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, never failed me yet;
Jesus' blood never failed me yet, there's one thing I know, for He loves me so.

And using the repetion of that strand, the composer Bryars gives it various orchestral settings, eventually bringing in Tom Waits to duet with the tramp. Depending on your state of mind, it is either dirgelike and transcendent or the most repetitive thing you've ever heard, given that it goes on for 72 minutes. I tend toward the former.

Sonny Stitt is one of those superior, but slightly lesser known, jazz saxophonists who helped to define the Golden Age of jazz. He shines on "Sonny's Blues," a tune I enjoy both for its own qualities and because it is the title of a powerful James Baldwin short story that was quite meaningful to me a couple of decades ago, especially the closing lines:

There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn't seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling.

"Here," the Pavement song written by Stephen Malkmus, removes any doubt that he is one of the premier songwriters of his generation. Its lyrics and exquisite beauty transcend its low-fi production:

i was dressed for success
but success it never comes
and i'm the only one who laughs
at your jokes when they are so bad
and your jokes are always bad
but they're not as bad as this

come join us in a prayer
we'll be waiting waiting where
everything's ending here

Let us break musical bread together; let us sip melodic wine. Let us enter Lent with a spirit of communion with beautiful music. Certainly, we can take that on. Come join us in a musical prayer.


Gavin Bryars and Pavement are available at Itunes. The Sonny Stitt recordings with Harry Edison and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis may be available on import.

7 comments:

jed said...

I'll come with you. I was given that Gavin Bryars cd back around 1995. I was blown away. It is always a rewarding listen and a great way for you to announce your musical communion. I'm not too tech minded but you should include Emmylou Harris' version of Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand." There are some Big Star songs that lend themselves to this too. Oops, I souldn't suggest what you post on your blog. Sorry.

Billy Bob said...

Jed, suggestions welcome. Could you send me the Emmylou via gmail? I only have Dylan's version.

Billy Bob said...

Jed, what about Dino Jr. on Apr. 13?

jed said...

I will run a CD to Robin on Monday. Is DJ coming to Chatt? Thanks.

Tockstar said...

Pavement has a song called "Shady Lane" that's kinda spiritual and stuff. And don't forget Van Morrisson's "Whenever God Shines His Light." I mean, it's not exactly subtle, but it's good.

Tockstar said...

Oh, I have that Emmylou "Every Grain of Sand" if you still need a copy.

Billy Bob said...

Could you gmail me the Emmylou?

Shady Lane is a great choice--"It's everybody's god...."