Biblical texts set to music are a church tradition, but when you add the element of jazz, it expands its artistic reach.
Minneapolis composer and pianist Jeremy Walker has written a jazz choral piece based on the Book of Psalms that was motivated by his own struggle with illness. "7 Psalms" premieres Saturday night at Bethel University in Arden Hills.
Jazz lovers know Walker as the founder of Brilliant Corners, the diminutive yet dynamic downtown St. Paul jazz club where Itzhak Perlman and Wynton Marsalis once jammed into the night.
Walker was also a gifted saxophonist with a brilliant career ahead when a mysterious autoimmune disease invaded his body. The agonizing illness wreaked havoc on his coordination. It stymied doctors for 12 years until they finally figured out it was Lyme Disease. Walker was powerless as he watched his skill slip away.
"I was a player, you know," he said. "I wanted to be a great improviser, virtuosic saxophonist and I became increasingly less virtuosic as Lyme's Disease took its toll."
Eventually, Walker was unable to command his instrument and switched to piano. He started looking for a new way to compose and became drawn to the idea of creating a jazz choral work. Walker searched for something in English or American poetry that he might set to music, but settled on a more familiar, more sacred text, the Old Testament's Book of Psalms.
"I mean the book is just dripping with human hope and suffering and kind of all of it intertwined so it was blues material," he said.
Many of the psalms are believed to have been written by Israel's King David. They're essentially songs, which give thanks, call out enemies, and praise or petition God. A whole category of psalms falls into what's called the lament genre, and in their expression of doubt, despair and suffering, call out to God for an answer or assistance. They had a special resonance with Walker, and felt ripe for an interpretation.
"It just sort of occurred to me that it would be interesting to put the jazz vernacular harmonic universe with the psalms, and kind of once it occurs to me and a sound attaches itself to it, I'm stuck, I'm gonna do it," he said.
"7 Psalms" features a jazz quartet of bass, drums, saxophone and Walker on piano accompanying a solo vocalist and 15-member choir. The human voice and singing are at the core of the work, partly because an important element of jazz is the call and response, which comes to it through African American spirituals and gospel music.
"So right away the call and response between solo voice, or between the band and the choir, those sounds I could hear," he said.
Walker chose the Psalms he felt were the most universal and contemporary. He started with 13 then whittled them down to seven. The first half of the piece is stormy and dark, as the singer cries out in distress, or wails like Mahalia Jackson. In the second half, the music calms down, almost as if to reflect a deeper understanding of God.
There's a variety of influences in "7 Psalms," from Mozart's Requiem Mass and the chord progression to "House of the Rising Sun" to Johnny Cash's cover of the Trent Rezner song "Hurt." It contains melodic representations of the anguish and uncertainty of Walker's illness. It also reflects his Christian beliefs.
"I'm devout but troubled," he said. "Belief in anything, another person, friendships, whatever it is, is as much a crisis as it is comforting."
In the future, he wants to record it, then take the ensemble and the piece on the road and play it with choirs across the country. But his wish for the performance at Bethel University on Saturday night is profound in its simplicity.
"I want us, meaning the musicians and the audience, just to feel one another," he said.