Music Recommendation: “Vince Guaraldi: The Grace Cathedral Concert” (1965)

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I don’t usually write about music on this blog, but I have been listening to this recording this week and thought it was worth a note, since it is a bit rare. rather than try to do it justice, I will simply quote the excellent review by Andrew Menendez on Amazon.com:

This project first began when the Rt. Rev. James A. Pike – the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California – and the Rev. C. Julian Bartlett – the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco – became interested in an idea held by the Rev. Charles Gompertz of Novato, CA, to create a “modern setting for the choral Eucharist.” The jazz pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi was invited to be a part of the project, and the resulting effort is chronicled on this album. The introduction by Bishop Pike carefully frames the purpose of the May 21, 1965 event: to celebrate the Eucharist. Unlike other attempts at contemporizing liturgical settings, the Grace Cathedral concert, although not meant to be a performance, retains the solemn dignity of the service while subtly using the modern metaphor of jazz as a means of musical expression. This can be noted especially in the Latin-jazz variations of ‘Kyrie Eleison’ and ‘Agnus Dei(O Lamb of God)’. ‘Theme to Grace’ provides a light diversion from the chanting, allowing Guaraldi, as well as bassist Tom Beeson and drummer Lee Charlton, to offer their musical talents. While ‘Holy Communion Blues’ literally serves as the distribution music, it gently but deliberately calls to mind the mixed mood of the Last Supper: stoic, yet humble. Whether you are an admirer of fine church music, or are a Guaraldi fan, you will be awestruck by what you hear. Vince Guaraldi truly left behind a liturgical treasure in this album.

As a pianist myself, my favorite parts are where the choir holds single notes and Guraldi seemingly improvises lovely melodies around the sung tones. It’s a simple, subtle device but produces transcendental moments of beauty. As it is the holidays, you owe it to yourself to enjoy this wonderful recording alongside your other favorites.

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