Jazz probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “chorus”—but that’s what’s on the menu at the Rutgers-Newark Chorus performance this Sunday, Dec. 8, at St. Mary’s Parish. The chorus, led by conductor Brian Harlow, has been rehearsing the “Mass for Peace” by acclaimed jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams for weeks.
The endeavor, a collaboration between the Rutgers-Newark Chorus and the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, is several years in the making. Harlow explains: “Elizabeth Surles, [a] faculty member and archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS), sings alto in the chorus. A few years ago, she mentioned that the Institute had some choral music, including that of Mary Lou Williams, and sent me some samples of her work. At first I considered trying to find an excerpt or two that would work with just piano accompaniment, but it never seemed right for the programs until this fall, when Elizabeth suggested applying for a Cultural Programming Grant to help us pay for a trio of jazz musicians to accompany the chorus.”
Surles also connected Harlow with jazz pianist Deanna Witkowski, who had come to the Institute to do research for her new biography on Williams. Witkowski, former piano chair in the New York Jazz Orchestra and winner of the Great American Jazz Piano Competition, will be performing along with the chorus on Sunday and on Tuesday, Dec. 10 for a performance and panel discussion at the Rutgers-Newark Robeson Campus Center.
But how exactly does a chorus sing jazz? It’s tricky for classical musicians, and especially choral singers, says Harlow, if they do not have prior experience. “We have sung a couple of pieces in the jazz style, but they were always written out so the notation was what choral singers are used to. Interpreting what’s on the page of Mary Lou’s Mass has been a challenge for some, especially those places where we have to live with ambiguity because we are following a soloist or waiting for the instrumentalists to improvise.… Luckily we have such fabulous musicians that I am really just coordinating everything.”
That doesn’t mean the endeavor is without trial, however. There is no ‘choral score’ of the music in publication; “the original edition of the Mass for Peace was published in a short score with all of the vocal parts condensed on one staff above a piano part,” Harlow explains.
Working off a typeset score found in the Mary Lou Williams collection at the IJS, Harlow still “had to use my own musical judgment to adapt it in consultation with Deanna, who has performed this music before with different ensembles.”
“There are multiple scores and a recording with the composer playing, but discrepancies can be found when you look and listen closely. There were places where chords had to be re-voiced or rhythms or even whole sections had to be edited. Ultimately, you have to do what you think is best to get to what communicates the spirit of the music in the best way.”
But it’s not all syncopation and swinging rhythms with the chorus. Harlow also selected pieces such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor and a Swedish holiday carol by Gustaf Nordqvist. When asked for the reasoning behind the selections, Harlow says, “I always love the music that I choose for the chorus to perform, which is partly why I pick it. It doesn’t make sense to me to waste your energy performing music that you can’t put your whole self behind and ‘sell’ to the listener.”
“That said, Bach will always be at the top of my list. This is the first time that I have attempted a piece by Bach with the chorus, as his music is quite complex and the voice parts are often written in an ‘instrumental’ way, which can be challenging to sing well… I’m also very fond of the lush harmonies of ‘Peace Like a River’ and the combination of beautiful melodic lines and pulsing energy in ‘Glory to God’ from Mary Lou’s Mass.”
The chorus will perform with the Deanna Witkowski Trio on Sunday at 3 p.m. at St. Mary’s Parish, 520 Dr. MLK Blvd., Newark and Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Essex Room, Robeson Campus Center, 350 Dr. MLK Blvd., Newark.