Before Joshua cued his ram’s-horn section to tumble the walls of Jericho, music and divine mission had already been jammin’ together for millennia, and the tradition has suffered no breakdown. Our own century has seen thousands of musicians drumming up the troops for the religion of their choice. Muslim jazz pianist Dollar Brand rebirthed himself as Abdullah Ibrahim; George Harrison plugged Krishna with "My Sweet Lord"; Glenn Danzig proclaimed his "Heart of the Devil"; Berry Gordy’s lyrics praised "Money."
Never shy to testify, Christians, from the hillbilly Carter Family to metalmen Stryper, have always contributed more than their share to the choir; the challenge has been to add something novel. A trinity of recent releases demonstrates the continuing boundlessness of their ingenuity.
Those who have failed to find spirituality in the silicon chip just haven’t been looking hard enough.
"This music is inspired by God," says South Coast musician Álexi (uh-lex-eye) of his new The Mystery, an instrumental journey through the Bible performed entirely by him on electronic keyboards and MIDI computer programs. "At first, I go to my keyboard room and I start writing tracks. Nothing really comes out of it — some noise, some banging. I get frustrated, I turn off my equipment. But then I go back and say, ‘Let’s make God my partner, my melody writer.’ And everything comes out."
The result of the collaboration represents an appealing aesthetic you probably haven’t heard before. Determined beats anchor celestial sustains and windy effects, promoting a sense of divine directedness; regardless of whether one is drawn to the pretext, the album makes for a superior workout stimulant. The messages, though abstractly presented, are unambiguous- ly Scripture-related. Álexi says the song "Harvest," for instance, represents God plucking his chosen ones from among the weeds — which, judging by the music, is a most orderly process. And he explains that "Forbidden Fruit" is not about drugs — it’s simply the sin of Adam and Eve.
Álexi offers a hypothetical parental analogy to that Genesis tale of the garden, the apple (the Mac?) and the Fall. "You tell your kids, ‘You can watch TV and have the Internet and all this, but don’t go to my keyboard room and break my keyboards.’ And they say, ‘Okay,’ and then they take a hammer and they break all your keyboards."
Álexi’s influences include classical (touches of Bach, Prokofiev, Vivaldi) and the rock music he grew up listening to: Led Zeppelin (faint traces of "Immigrant Song" in the octave riffs of "Mystery"), Pink Floyd (the lush synths) and even Black Sabbath. But that was before his awakening.
"Younger kids love violent music. Then, as you get older, it gets on your nerves. Once you recognize what is the plan of God for the Earth, you receive the Holy Spirit and you change — your talents change, your character changes, your con duct changes."
The self-described rebellious youth made his transition after moving to the USA: A near-death experience at age 17 (he’s now 41) gave him perspective on his pathless life and got him looking for answers. Álexi had been raised Russian Orthodox, but "I was scared of that church, because it’s kind of de pres sed, re stricted. Some body hand ed me a Bible in the street, and I started reading and recognizing the true Chris tianity."
Apprehensive lest his music and his faith work against his business (he’s a successful technology pro vider in the field of "access control"), Álexi prefers not to reveal his surname or the Middle Eastern country in which he was reared. Those details arenthe point; the goal is accessing "the mystery of the kingdom of heaven and eternal life" through music, "a language that knows no borders."
By the way, there’s a matter Álexi wants to clear up about the modern state of his religion. "Christianity is very high-tech," he says. "Some people think Christ ians are a bunch of stupid people. But you have to be very high-tech to understand the Old Testament, and the New Test ament, and the future."
Argentina-born composer Lalo Schifrin employed more conventional vehicles — the WDR Big Band and the St. Stephan’s Youth Choir (both of Cologne), plus guests — to realize Jazz Mass, his new take on Jazz Suite on the Mass Text, which won him a Grammy in 1965. If anything can get a lapsed Catholic back into a pew, this is it.
The foundation of Jazz Mass lies neither in Álexi’s brand of Bible-basic faith nor in international megareligion’s ritualistic solemnity. The music presents Christianity in a light familiar to many of its prac- titioners: not unquestioning acceptance, but conflicted improvisation.
The introductory "Kyrie" establishes the roles: The choir will represent various strains of popular response to the mys ter ies; the solo ist will stand for the individual congregant. With unortho dox chords, the sing ers an nounce that the faithful flock, though herded together by the historical momentum of the big band’s riffing, isn’t conventionally harmonious, while Tom Scott’s swinging flute over a quick bass vamp plays the role of the storm-tossed everyman.
Through the rest of the service, Schif rin follows up each unusual effect with another one just as inventive: The antiphonal interplay of harp, choir and clarinet on "Gloria" creates an intellectual tension. The random ascent of multiple voices on "Credo"shows how diver- sity can create wild union despite itself.
The primitive, jarring chants of "Sanctus" underline the otherness of holiness. The organ-based "Prayer" de mon strates the emo tional sources of most supplication: suffering, yearning and uncertainty. And the spooky piano and vibraphone of "Offertory" reflect the uncrackable mystery of the "body of Christ" the priest displays in this section of the Mass. It’s a complex, thoughtful and very successful expression. And half the time, it jams like crazy.
At age 66, Schifrin is consolidating a staggeringly productive career. The most dynamic and musical of film and television scorers (Dirty Harry, Bullitt, Mission: Impossible, dozens more), a top-rank jazz pianist-composer (with Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Cannonball Adderley, among many others), and a sought-after semiclassical composer and conductor (London Philharmonic, Vienna Sym phony, L.A. Philharmonic, etc.), the longtime L.A. resident seemed to have few mountains left to climb, yet hit new peaks last year with excellent soundtracks to Tango and Rush Hour, and started his own record label, Aleph, to showcase his output. Gloria in excelsis, vaquero.
Since no discussion of devotional music should exclude the Mother of God, it’s fortunate that L.A.’s Cleopatra Records has scheduled Virgin Voices: A Tribute to Madonna, Volume One for April release. Scoff though you may at the prospect of numerous pop artists analyzing the many controversial facets of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s life and influence, you will find many of their perceptions provocative.
Overall, Tribute is a celebratory dance album, led off by Heaven 17 eloquently summing up the position of the church fathers who instituted Mary’s August 15 Feast of the Assumption: "(We Need a) Holiday." Loleatta Holloway then offers up the soul-deep, reverent Ave Maria "Like a Prayer," followed by Annabella Lwin’s bubbly emulation of the BVM, "Like a Virgin."
After that, the veneration gives way to some boldly revisionist forays. On "Bad Girl," James Hardway, Amanda Ghost and Boy George embrace the contentious "fallen woman" theory of Mary’s motherhood: Our Lady is made to label herself a "bad girl, drunk by 6," who tells her divine progeny, "You’ll always be my baby," while admitting, "I know I don’t deserve you." On "Justify My Love," Front line Assembly guest vocalist Kristy Thirsk, after narcotized susurrations about finding herself "naked in a rainstorm," transgresses even further, declaring, "I don’t want to be your mother" and encouraging genital stirrings wholly inappropriate to the subject. The defilement reaches a kind of Gehenna with KMFDM’s rusty industrial noise fest "Material Girl," which features a perverted male voice contesting not only the Blessed Virgin’s spiritual credentials but her very femininity: "We are living in a material world, and I," he growls on her behalf with maximum testosterone, "am a material girl."
For a more edifying examination of Mary’s struggle, consult the synoptic Gospels and perhaps "The Infancy Gospel of James," a pious second-century pseudepigraphal speculation on the details of her life, available with background and commentary in 1997’s The Life of Mary and Birth of Jesus (Ulysses Press). If it’s true, as the book claims, that 2 billion Hail Marys are offered up daily, a little fundamental understanding is the least we can attempt.
Álexi’s The Mystery is available from City Hall Records, 25 Tiburon St., San Rafael, CA 94901; his Web site is at http://www.alexi.net
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Lalo Schifrin’s Web site is at http://www.schifrin.com.
Numerous links to Virgin Mary Web sites can be found at http://www.catholic.org/mary/marylink.html.