PREVIEW: Nine Lessons & Carols: A Soulful Celebration at the Jazz Cafe, Camden, Sun 6th Dec

Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir (SSGC)

Miko Giedroyc, organiser & organist of the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir, previews Nine Lessons & Carols: A Soulful Celebration, featuring guest singers Tracey Campbell and Kathy McLeish, and spoken word artists Mel Giedroyc and Karl Nova.

The relationship between Christian music and secular music has always been an uneasy one. The two thousand years since the time of Jesus have seen cycles of hubris and nemesis – periods when the music of the tavern, the theatre, the dance-hall and the workplace have been welcomed joyfully into Christian worship, followed by periods of angst and repression.

It is incredible to think that the Council of Trent in the 1560s found the choral polyphony of the late Renaissance, beloved of today’s traditionalists, too luscious and earthy to be worthy of post-Reformation Catholic liturgy.

The last century and this so far have been everywhere and in every genre the time of Black American music, which also has seen its own cycle of hubris and nemesis vis a vis Christian worship. There have been periods of understandable suspicion on the part of black churches against jazz and blues and all their descendents, periods in which they have been reluctant to import any traces thereof. In the films of the Newport Jazz Festivals in the late 1950s, jazz can be heard soaring through bebop and into modal and free… and gospel, as represented by Mahalia Jackson, stirring, noble and beautiful, but still entrenched in traditional hymn book harmony.

We are lucky enough to live in a time of plenty in Black American Christian music. The Greats of Contemporary Gospel have been busy collecting the harvest of secular music since the early 1960s and infusing it with contemporary gospel’s own take on choral harmony and dynamics, and the framing of lyrics. Nowhere is this more in evidence than at Christmas, where the joy of the season (gospel is always better at rejoicing than at contemplating) mixes with the poetry of the Prophet Isaiah and the time-tested melodies and lyrics of the great Christmas carols.

Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir (SSGC) exists to bring this amazing Spirit-filled music into mainstream Christian worship, working every month at Farm Street RC Church in Mayfair and St James’s Anglican Church Piccadilly. Its founding director was Tracey Campbell, one of Britain’s top gospel artists, and a great deal of Britain’s gospel talent has worked with SSGC and nurtured it. Some jazz artists too: for example, Dave Okumu, who wrote a beautiful but also functional congregational mass setting for SSGC in 2007.

The classic Nine Lessons & Carols service was created in Cornwall, in 1880, and was a beautiful example of harvesting: it was the Bishop of Truro’s declared intention to bring Christmas carols from people’s homes into church, interspersing them with short bursts of key Messianic scripture. By taking the Nine Lessons & Carols format into music venues, and reinterpreting the carols through contemporary gospel, we feel that we are taking the Bishop’s mission a step further. Our guest artists are among Britain’s finest (they each have a list of credits and plaudits too long to cite). The script has been assembled by one of our sopranos, Erica Jarnes, with additional writing from another SSGC soprano, Chenoa Bradshaw, and is based on two widely contrasting bible translations: those of King James and Rob Lacey. Musical arrangements are those of Contemporary Gospel Greats (Mervyn Warren, Israel Houghton, Donald Lawrence, etc.) as well as some of our own. The piece is written to be intelligible to, and enjoyed by, everyone, not just Christians.

My favourite plaudit for SSGC comes from the Rector of St Stephen’s Walbrook: “Soul Sanctuary sound like angels on fire!”

Tickets for the premiere at the Jazz Cafe, Camden, on 6th December at 7.30pm, can be purchased from their website.

Categories: miscellaneous

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