|One Final Note Review Jeff Kaiser isn’t the first composer to endeavor to write jazz-flavored liturgical music—Mary Lou Williams beat him to the punch by a half-a-century—but “The Alchemical Mass” is still an unusual undertaking. Kaiser makes it more so by using as his text the heretical Mass written by 16th century astrologer and scholar Nicholas Melchior Cibenensis. Kaiser shows a boldness fitting to the text with his blending of avant-garde jazz and classically inspired vocal writing. And he succeeds at both.
Throughout, swirling, raucous free passages give way to a choir voiced in a manner that would make any contemporary choral composer proud. The Introitus opens with what sounds like a wolf call—don’t worry, Paul Winter’s nowhere in sight here—and developing with slap-tongued saxophones. The voices of the Ojai Camerata enter softly, blending with the horns; a sound not very different from that opening howl. But that moment of calm is disrupted by an explosion of horns. The voices return with sopranos sustaining a long note and the males chanting underneath.
Kaiser gets a sound from the choir redolent of ancient sanctuaries. Yet he seamlessly ties this with contemporary technique, as on the Introitus, when he calls on the voices to start swooping, which he then underpins with a hell-raising bass drum tattoo. This shift from the heavenly to the hellish is true to the tradition where the promise of paradise is set against the threat of the inferno. Heavenly is not too strong a word for Kaiser’s opening of the Kyrie, nor for the Camerata’s execution of the tightly voiced harmonies. The same holds true for the final amen. Kaiser links the free form with the liturgical form by using variations of bell-like sounds that are at home in both settings, whether a ride pattern played on triangle or the boom of a gong.
“Suite Solutio”, played by a sextet co-led by Kaiser and guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante, is a less ambitious work, but certainly no less successful. The suite is no more a slave to accepted form than the Mass. It’s a mélange of color. Diaz-Infante wrenches an impressive array of effects from his prepared acoustic guitar. He squeals and squawks with abandon, skittering over the fretboard with glancing strokes.
Kaiser on flugelhorn and Scot Ray on trombone peck at their horns and distort their sounds with a variety of mutes. Brad Dutz on percussion and Richie West on drums contribute to the kaleidoscope. Bassist Jim Connolly seems to be assigned the role of the voice of reason as it were, adding a rich, steady counterpoint that comes to the fore on Part III when he bows a deep, lyrical line. The final section employs the same kind of bell sounds that are so important in the Mass: The piece, and the session, end with a solitary bell ringing for a full 30 seconds.