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Smooth Bananas: ‘Passion Music’

“Passion Music” by British jazz composer Will Todd is a brisk walk through the Biblical story of the Crucifixion with a tiny twist: it’s accompanied by a black gospel soloist.

The album, released by Oxford Music Press and label Signum Classic Music, features music composed by Will Todd. Most Todd’s music is in the sacred choral music genre, and this is not his first stab at writing large scale religious works. The album also features the entirety of his “Jazz Mass,” featuring different sections of the “Ordinary of the Catholic Mass.” The actual piece, titled “Passion Music” on the album, features the voices of the St. Martin’s Choir, gospel singer Shaneeka Simon, the members of the Will Todd Jazz Ensemble, John Turville at the piano, and Will Todd conducting the recorded performance.

“Passion Music” can be called a “jazz oratorio.” In classical music, there is a style of piece called an oratorio which is much like an opera in that it normally tells a story but in contrast, oratorios do not feature stage direction or direct drama. Additionally, participants in an oratorio performance typically do not have to memorize any music that they are performing. The jazz elements of this work primarily come in the form of the style of singing from both the soloist and the choir, the instrumentation, and the rhythmic elements.

Will Todd, like his other musical works, strikes at the soul in a way that many other composers simply can’t. Todd’s music is incredibly palatable to a wider audience, but this comes from his jazz background. Even when jazz features strong dissonance between notes, it is recognizable as “just part of the music” with audiences. The tunefulness of Todd’s music is what makes his music so widely applicable.

The opening movement of the work is titled “Greater Love” and features text directly from the Bible. The piece is in a groovy R&B style with alternating statements by different sections of the choir before they are joined by the gospel soloist. The piece then becomes a dialogue between the full chorus and the soloist. This is a great way to open the piece and to get listeners to listen further. After “Greater Love” comes “We Believe” which is in a distinctly gospel style and features the first large section of solo work from the gospel singer. The piece’s nine movements progress telling the story of Jesus Christ as he was killed using many clever musical devices. In “Stabat Mater,” the choir is primarily confined to block chords rather than any sort of independent rhythm. One could make the argument that this is to represent the loneliness and pain of watching your child die as depicted in the text of the Stabat Mater.

“Passion Music” is a must check out for deep lovers of classical or jazz, and especially lovers of choral music in a variety of styles. It’s also a great listen for someone trying to step just outside their comfort zone musically. It has its fingers in enough genres that anyone should be able to find something to love. “Passion Music” receives an A-plus rating.

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