In his opening remarks at the Abyssinian Baptist Church Jazz Vespers, the Rev. Calvin Butts III promised that the evening’s concert would be edifying, and as usual, his prophecy was revealed.
When percussionist Neal Smith picked up his mallets and rolled out the familiar beat of “Little Drummer Boy,” the Christmas music theme was established. It became even more evident when pianist Cyrus Chestnut and bassist Dezron Douglas joined him in rapid modulations, though not without moments of silence, as if they were allowing the song to settle before they resumed at a very deliberate pace.
Chestnut is a robust virtuoso, and whether he chooses to probe a melody or reconfigure the harmonic contours, there seems to always be an insightful intellectual at play, a musician seeking ways to give his art a broader context.
On this evening, at least in the first part of the concert, the trio was essentially churchy with here and there elements of funk, samba and down home-blues. A woman on a pew nearby seemed disengaged as though there was something profane in bringing the blues to the church. Perhaps to ward off the sounds, she opened her Bible and fingered the pages.
The trio concluded the opening set, so to speak, with a triumphant version of “Joy to the World,” and once more Chestnut was expansive, and Smith aided the jubilant romp with a heavy back beat while Douglas found just the right places to drop dollops of fresh intensity. For a moment, Chestnut seemed to summon a number of yuletide favorites. Were there fragments of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”?
After a brief intermission, the trio returned, this time backed by the United Voices of Abyssinian. The message in their music was enough for the lady in the pew to look up from her Bible and take notice.
When they offered “Away in a Manger,” the trio laid back and punctuated the voices as they filled the sanctuary with a multitude of choral harmony. It was a moment of serendipity when they sang about baby Jesus asleep in his manger just as the lady in the pew moved her finger over the book of Matthew about the birth of Christ.
“O Holy Night” and “Silent Night” were rendered with sublime tenderness and church seemed to heave a heavenly sigh. James Davis, the conductor, hushed the choir and the trio to even a softer sound with a wave of his hands.
But the quiet was quickly converted to sheer pandemonium when they launched into “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Where Chestnut had used the keyboard like a harp on the previous compositions, stroking it with a flowing movement, it was time now to gather its full force, and that energy was matched by his cohorts and the powerful choir. The near-capacity crowd was on its feet, keeping time with claps, stamping feet and waving arms.
A Baptist congregation was suddenly sanctified with rhythm, and even the lady in the pew had put aside her Bible, leaped to her feet and something akin to “Hallelujah” came from her mouth.