In 1995, the late, legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck did something not terribly jazzy. He conducted a choral Mass which he had written, entitled “To Hope! A Celebration“, from his piano at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Some would say that the piece sums up Brubeck’s Christian faith. You have to bear with it for about two and a half minutes or so, until the point when it suddenly just comes alive and simply crashes over, at the end, to an infectious and almost raucous finale of Christian triumph, in its right and pleasant form. Writing about the piece a year later for the liner notes of its release, Brubeck explained:
“The heart of the Mass is found in the words themselves, living language full of deep meaning, born from the very human need to know God. It is a language shaped by tradition and honed fine by usage, embodying within it the seeds for understanding. I approached the composition as prayer, hoping to translate into music the powerful words which have grown through the centuries. …
“One of the most memorable moments of my life was hearing the sounds of the Mass ring out through the vast nave of the Washington Cathedral. Emotions that are life, from sorrow to exaltation, were part of my experiences in writing To Hope. When the work was completed, I felt a strong sense of wholeness and affirmation. I pray that upon hearing this performance, you will share my feelings.”
Here’s the piece in question, performed in Moscow a couple years after the DC version:
Again it’s really something: a “Gerald Heard” moment, of pure creative inspiration. Here is this very old man, Brubeck, “making it up” as he plays, which is pure Jazz also; and taking his time, and in touch with his roots, with his “old men” cronies still loving what they are doing; and it is a mass, a sacred expression of joy and hope and possibility, framed in terms of Biblical religion and Christianity. Even the saxophone player, whom I’ve never appreciated (always because of the comparison with Paul Desmond), plays with feeling, taste, and love. A great performance by the kind of artist we’d all like to be or become, and in Old Age! Brubeck here is leading, and showing, the Way.
Fortunately, “To Hope!” was not Brubeck’s only foray into religious music. Christianly speaking, you couldn’t do better than listen to his “Blessed are the Poor (Sermon on the Mount)” from his Berlin concert with Gerry Mulligan. There are also some touching proto-Christian elements in his “The Real Ambassadors”, the texts of which were written by Mrs. Brubeck, I believe, during the Kennedy years.
I think that his “Festival of La Posada”, while being a little ‘light’ in terms of the choral support — not too many steps away from sounding amateurish — has two high points of Brubeck’s religious performance, his piano solo to mark the people’s “running” to the manger, and the piano lullaby to the Christ Child, which is ravishing. Don’t forget Brubeck’s unaccompanied Christmas CD, which is somewhat sad in the overall tone.
There is also a kind of short cantata for Pentecost or Ascension, can’t remember which one, that is all choral and little Brubeck on the keys, tho’ he wrote it and conducted it.
On the later CDs with his new quartet, which accompanied him for quite a long time, and was definitely less mellow than the original Paul Desmond-supported sound, there are a few religious tracks, and one powerful Bach progression. I think he wrote the latter in honor of a student of his, who is a gifted female concert pianist.
What Dave Brubeck carried through his entire life, and I have heard and seen many interviews with the man, right up to just a few years ago, was a gentle affect, a very sweet spirit; and then, that unforgettable polytonality which he learned apparently from Darius Milhaud. The high points of Brubeck’s recorded polytonality would probably be his “Carnegie Hall Concert” version of “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and also his early Newport Jazz Festival LP with his “Two-Part Contention”.
May he rest in peace.