Wynton Marsalis’s new release, “Abyssinian Mass,” is the third full-length work of a spiritual nature by the trumpeter, composer and bandleader. Compared with his epic “All Rise” (2002), the Mass, which uses the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the 70-voice Chorale Le Chateau choir, is comparatively lean and intimate, and Mr. Marsalis’s compositional ideas are much tighter. The work, which was commissioned by New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 2008 for the 200th anniversary of that African-American institution, received its premiere at JALC’s Rose Hall that year, and then five years later it was taken on tour by the orchestra and recorded. It is now being issued as the fourth album from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Blue Engine Records.
Mr. Marsalis says that his fascination with “the form of a typical Baptist service in an African-American church” came from his impatience with it as a youngster. Picture Mr. Marsalis as a restless 6-year-old squirming through a long Sunday morning in a humid New Orleans church in the 1960s. “I remember growing up in church,” he says in a DVD included with the new album. “I always remembered the form because I always wanted it to be over, so I would start to notice, ‘when we get to this section, [...] it’s almost over!’”
Generally speaking, Mr. Marsalis’s shorter pieces are usually the best at sustaining audience attention—my personal favorite is still the 52-minute “Big Train” (1999). But while in any two-hour concert work there will inevitably be lulls, in “Abyssinian Mass” they are relatively rare. The inspiration for almost all extended jazz compositions is Duke Ellington’s three “Sacred Concerts”—works that are both morally uplifting and unceasingly entertaining—and “Abyssinian Mass” is the closest that anyone has come to attaining that rarefied level of spirituality and swing.
“Abyssinian Mass” sustains its length not only by keeping everything melodically interesting, but through consistently original ideas about how to deploy the twin resources of jazz orchestra and gospel choir. On “Invocation and Chant,” clarinetist Victor Goines improvises over what seems like a choral background and a persistent polyrhythm. But on closer listen, it becomes clear that the “voices” behind him are a choir of vocalized moaning trombones, and the beat is supplied by handclaps—a signature Marsalis device. He has turned instruments into humans and vice-versa. This is followed by the “Responsive Reading,” in which vocal soloists interact with instrumentalists in a memorable new setting for St. Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.”
“Abyssinian Mass” not only succeeds as a long-form work, but the individual sections qualify as remarkable slices of songwriting; it is a work of theater as well as devotion. And it is so consistently inspiring that even Mr. Marsalis’s 6-year-old self would have been sorry to see it end.
By WILL FRIEDWALD March 21, 2016 5:08 p.m. ET WALL STREET JOURNAL