America's Music Brings Different Twist To Universal Story

Nov 30, 2017

The Christmas story has been told in many ways. And many kinds of music have been used to help tell that story anew. One such piece, billed as “A Jazz Nativity,” will bring its interpretation to northern Illinois this weekend.

Singer, composer and producer Anne Phillips wrote “Bending Towards the Light” more than 30 years ago for a performance in New York City. It combines arrangements of traditional music associated with the stories of Christ’s birth with original charts by Phillips and fellow jazz artists Bob Kindred and Dave and Iola Brubeck.

Since its premiere, it has become an annual fixture in the Big Apple.

Anne Phillips
Credit annephillips.com

A soundtrack album was released in 1995 that featured jazz greats like vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, Dave Brubeck (this time at the piano), and Latin jazz master Tito Puente, bop and soul-jazz drummer and singer Grady Tate, who died just this past October at age 85, sings the title piece, “Bending Towards the Light,” on that soundtrack.

Chicago-area saxophonist and church musician Andrew Tecson is behind several performances of the work this season. One takes place this Saturday at Hall High School in Spring Valley. It’s a fundraiser for the Starved Rock Country Community Foundation and Glenhagen Farm Retreat. He’ll be in it, too, as a jazz-playing shepherd. But he’s really excited about who and what the production showcases.

“Great jazz artists who have worked with people like, you know, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles and Peggy Lee,” he enthused. “So you‘ve got incredible jazz musicians expressing the vibrancy and the rhythmic vitality of jazz. Another thing that’s very special is that it brings elements of dance, particularly tap-dancing.”

Tecson says the piece is faithful to the original, and people easily will recognize the familiar themes of the Nativity. But Philips plays with some of the traditions around the stories. That provides a chance to have some fun as well as showcase some well-known artists.

Trumpeter Art Davis will be one of the three kings in "Bending Toward the Light."
Credit chicagojazzorchestra.org

“When we have the three kings come, we’ve got the Latin percussion king – that’s Geraldo de Oliveira, who’s from Brazil. And the trumpet king, Art Davis, who teaches at Northern Illinois University and has toured with the folks I mentioned before, Tecson said, “and then, our tap dancer Nico Rubio, is an amazing tap-dancing king.” 

Tecson says the jazz approach in this telling of the Nativity makes it more than just a rote performance for those involved.

“When you’re improvising, it’s a group composition, and it’s never been played that way before. It probably won’t ever be played that way again,” Tecson said. “So, there’s a certain level of excitement because nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen -- not even the musicians themselves. And there’s a lot of communication going back and forth.”

Tecson says some people accustomed to the traditional ways of telling the story may question whether the approach here is some kind of gimmick. Tecson says no. He says jazz isn’t better -- or worse -- than other music traditions that have become part of the holiday. But, when done well, it’s just as valid.

“Jazz is one of the amazing gifts of the American culture to the world, and people play jazz all over the world now,” he said, “so it’s a universal language, and we use that language to bring this story to life.”

And for him, it’s a very good way to convey the message he believes the story has for a world caught up in in the frenzy of holidays.

“So I hope that people’s hearts are touched, that they are reminded of the essence of the gift of God to all of us, and that’s why we’re doing those Christmas shopping errands,” Tecson said. “It’s because it’s all about giving to others, as God has given to us.”