Will Todd’s ‘Mass in Blue’ (19 Nov St. John’s Smith Square / EFG LJF 2023)

Mass In Blue: composer Will Todd talks about how his blend of jazz and choral music became a surprise international success, now celebrating its 20th anniversary at the EFG London Jazz Festival. Feature by John Bungey:

Concert poster. Clockwise from top left: Will Todd, Tom Green,
Francesca Confortini, Rob Barron, Tommy Andrews

Sometimes a musician doesn’t know when he’s got a hit on his hands. Will Todd‘s Mass in Blue – following in the tradition of sacred jazz explored by Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck – has gone round the world. There have been more than 500 performances, an album and praise from audiences and critics for his bold blend of jazz rhythm and choral harmony.

None of which the composer anticipated when Mass In Blue was premiered to a thinly populated Cambridge Corn Exchange in 2003. Todd recalls: “A very good friend of mine came to the concert, someone who had been to lots of premieres, and I said to him ‘I guarantee this will never be performed again.’ I was absolutely certain.

“It was a mixture of fear – composers are always fearful before the first performance and you’re sort of guarding against failure. I was very pleased with the performance but thought no one’s going to put this on again.” (Todd played the piano part with his wife, Beth Halliday, as the soprano soloist.)

“Having spent my whole career partly with church music and also playing jazz and writing some jazz pieces, I thought the idea that I could mix these up would definitely get a black mark.”

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In the first three years there were “probably about four performances by brave souls”, including one at Durham Cathedral, the city where Todd grew up.

“Then suddenly the piece began to gain momentum, especially when we released the recording with the Vasari Singers in 2006.” Rare for a British work in the jazz idiom, America took Todd’s Mass to its heart. The first US performances were in 2008 before the composer played piano in a performance at the Lincoln Center in New York in 2010. “The Americans are in a way more set up for it: a lot of universities and colleges will have a high-quality big band or jazz ensemble, so it makes sense to put that together with their choir. Those resources do exist in the UK but not to the same extent.”

Todd had “a mild fear” of taking his score to the home of jazz, “but I’ve only experienced very enthusiastic American players who really get it… Players like that with a rhythm section part, although notated, the expectation is that they will do stuff with it.

“I’ve played it many, many times [about 200, he thinks] and never played it the same way twice because it will depend on the acoustic, the size of the choir; lots of factors come into play, which is as it should be in a jazz work where you’re making the performance in the moment, not just in the composition beforehand.”

Will Todd. Photo credit: Rob Blackman

As well as the States, Mass in Blue has been performed in Europe, as far as Ukraine and Russia, Australia too and South America. Next year Todd is off to Taiwan. At the EFG London Jazz Festival on 19 November, Francesca Confortini will be the soprano soloist with the Civil Service Choir; Rob Barron plays the piano with the Tom Green Jazz Orchestra. Todd has heard the Civil Service Choir perform another work of his and was “absolutely thrilled… They’re the perfect kind of choir for this piece because they’ve got great energy and panache and this is a work that wears its heart on its sleeve and they’ll give it a good showing.”

At 53, Todd is a successful and prolific composer – surely the only jazz pianist with four operas to his name. His work has been performed for the late Queen and President Obama. He studied music at Bristol University and now lives in Guildford, Surrey. At Bristol the realms of jazz and classical were kept far apart. “It was a double life – by day I was doing serial-style pieces in the music department then at night playing jazz in clubs and pubs and all sorts. In the late Eighties and Nineties there was some great jazz happening in Bristol.” He loved the challenge of playing tunes called out on the bandstand. Back at the music department, “they were straight down the line, contemporary classical”. He thinks that rigidity has lessened since.

“For a while it led to a schism in my head about what is good composing – the tradition of the western composer versus the improvising musician.”

Both elements fused, though, when he wrote his breakthrough piece. This anniversary year has also brought a series of Come and Sing: Mass in Blue events around Britain where singers come together to work up a performance that day.

“It’s wonderful,” says Todd,” especially when I think back to that gloomy Cambridge prediction. I feel so blessed to have brought it about because as composers we write lots of pieces but very few enter regular repertoire. The reasons behind that are complex – it’s not just how good a piece of music it is. To have something performed as much as this – I don’t take that lightly.”

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Celebrating Will Todd / Choral Jazz – Sunday, 19 Nov; St John’s Smith Square, London, produced by JBGB Events

LINK: Full details and bookings

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