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Improvisational Grace: Vespers and All That Jazz

Usually worship has an order, a plan, a set and predictable template for when we will sing and when we will pray, when we stand and when we sit. Even in some traditions that have a more free-form style, even in silent Quaker meeting, there is still an order, when the meeting opens and how it closes. Music works in much the same way. There is a theme, a melody, a rhythm. Some music sticks closely to an intricate score, while other musical forms have room for improvisation, where different instruments get a moment to shine, take a riff and extend it, bend it, turn it inside out and then return it to its original form before passing it on. Jazz is a brilliant form for this kind of experimentation.

In our Jazz Vespers service, there is a basic order of readings on a spiritual theme, with jazz arrangements of music that expresses something about that theme. Sometimes the music will be jazz versions of hymn tunes, like the Celtic tune of “Be Thou My Vision.” Other music will include jazz classics, sometimes pop or folk tunes.

The words of the service are like jazz, too. They take this theme and offer an intro, a basic re-telling of a scripture. Then layers are added, comments from theologians unpack the theme with connections between the time of the biblical story and the story of our time. Poems deliver the idea in a more impressionistic way, images more than sharply defined conclusions.

Over the summer, the themes of the vespers services focused on parables of Jesus. These stories are a little like jazz, too, in a way. They picked up familiar notes from the world of the listener—family quarrels, sheep, goats, weddings, bread, money—and weave them into the themes of the ministry of Jesus—grace and compassion, solidarity with the suffering, forgiveness and tenderness.

The chapel is cool, sunlit when the service begins and then increasing in shadow as night draws near. We sit together and listen, center ourselves and let the stories and the music open us to a new way of hearing. Maybe the story is familiar to us, or maybe it is not. It might sound a little different coming from one of the two readers who alternate reading the reflections.

The musical choices sometimes open new facets to the story. They are sometimes sly and humorous, like the jazz standard “The Party’s Over” at the end of the service that told the story where the foolish ones missed the wedding party. Sometimes the same tune is reworked several different ways, as if several different bands are remaking a favorite song. Sometimes the sounds evoked by a simple trio of piano, bass, and woodwinds make you sit up in your seat and look for more players, like the recent night a percussive low thrumming seemed to be some kind of a drum, but was the bass announcing the beginning of a journey.

We get lost in the music, we come back to the theme. Sometimes one might get distracted and begin thinking about grocery lists or chores to be done. But the music pulls us back and allows us to let all the stuff of the day roll off, allowing us just to be, sitting in the darkening hours of a Sunday evening, allowing the shadows to take the room into a place of rest. Sometimes the words grab us and point out some new way of thinking. Sometimes they are like an old friend.

Come join us on Sunday evenings for this time of reflection, refreshment, inspiration, and improvisation.

Vespers and all that Jazz happens every Sunday evening at 6:30, usually in the Wightman Chapel at Scarritt Bennett Center. Featured musicians include Kevin Madill, piano; Ike Harris, bass; and Matt Davich, woodwinds.

mtidwell photoMelissa Tidwell has written about spirituality, music, metaphor, and zombies. She is the former editor of Alive Now magazine, and the author of Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on Incarnation. She contributed to the Companions in Christ small group formation series and has also written for Weavings magazine. In 2013, Melissa returned to seminary to finish a degree begun 20 years before, and is now seeking a pastoral call in the Presbyterian Church. She is a resident campus assistant at Scarritt Bennett Center where she contributes to chapel services