Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bill's New Song

Here's another clip from the upcoming video, "Listening to Selah: Psalms Without Words Live." The tune is one of my favorites, "Bill's New Song." Based on Psalm 40, it's a piece about personal renewal and new beginnings, and the sabbatical that prompted its composition was certainly that. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

In the Final Stretch

Lots to report! The new project has been moving along. Here's what we can report:

(a) "Psalms Without Words" will be a double CD set. The tunes have been mixed, thanks to George Graham and Al Hamme, and a number of 10 PM to 2 AM sessions. George has finished a few edits and mastered the discs. They sound wonderful, and Bill has listened to them repeatedly.

(b) A DVD is also being produced, and will soon be replicated. We're calling it "Listening for Selah - Psalms Without Words Live." It includes our complete set from the 2008 Scranton Jazz Festival, and includes full performances of about eight tunes. It looks and sounds super! Also included on the DVD is a homemade documentary on "The Making of Psalms Without Words." Working with videographer Paul Flynn, Bill has put together some footage from the 2006 sabbatical that prompted the music, as well as scenes from rehearsals and recordings, and interviews with the musicians. It's a lot of fun.

Looks like the release date for the combined project will be February 2009. As soon as the discs become available, we'll put out the word to our fan list.

Meanwhile, here's a MPEG glimpse of one tune from the DVD, "The Last Word." Just a glimpse, scaled back for YouTube. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Poem - Listening for Selah

A new poem, probably to appear on the CD package:

Listening for Selah

In the beginning was the Song,
and everybody danced.
then Song gave birth to Words.
Faith spoke what it sang.
In the rhythm of time, the question arose:
which is better, Word or Song?
A silent battle muted all music,
and Word won for a while.
Each text lost its tune, and faith lost its heart.
Yet Spirit speaks in Song,
and from the seeds of Word, the Song is heard again.
For those with ears to hear, the heart will be revived.
For those with toes to tap, the dance goes off the page.
Everything shall dance again.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Psalms Weekend in Hershey

We are grateful to our good friends at Derry Presbyterian Church, Hershey, PA. They hosted the quartet last weekend for a concert of the new material, and we had a blast. Here's a new picture of Al, Tony, Bill, and Ron from the gig.

On Saturday morning, Bill gave two presentations on the Psalms as the Theological Forum lecturer. Later that afternoon, the Quartet hosted an open rehearsal and discussed some of the music with some fans. After dinner, we played two sets of our "Psalms Without Words," and the response was very affirming.

And at 8:00 a.m. on the next morning, we played the first of two jazz worship services at the Derry church. If you want to listen to Bill's sermon on Psalm 150, as well as a clip of our tune "Pass the Plate," click here.

We're grateful for the opportunity to get the next music heard. Thanks to all who made it possible!

Looks like there will be more mixing sessions at the studio in the neat future. Maybe the CD will get out by the end of the year!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Words about Psalms without Words

I've been teaching this week at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian conference center in the high desert of northern New Mexico. After playing a handful of the tunes on the second evening, a new friend named Pat shared a poem that she wrote during the performance.

It's all the more significant in that "Haunted Landscape" is a tune that I wrote here on the ranch in 2006, as I was decompressing from a silent retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. I think she nails what was in the air that evening. Thanks, Pat!

Haunted Landscape

They follow us here
yesterday’s painful argument
last week’s discouragement
arthritic knees and swollen joints.
But they will not have the last word.

In the music of the Psalm
we gather courage to face them,
rant and rail against them,
forgive them and release them.

Haunted child, you follow me like a ghost.
You have collected my tears in a bottle.
In the lamenting chords
I feel your power spilling out
as I embrace you in the dance.

-Pat Slentz
Ghost Ranch 8-5-08

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ah, it's sweet...

Yesterday's concert went well at the Scranton Jazz Festival - we played the music well, the crowd appreciated it, and all in all, a good show. The set list, as previously reported, was as follows:
  • Pass the Plate
  • Haunted Landscape
  • How Good It Is
  • The Lingering Questions
  • Inheriting a Parable
  • The Last Word
  • Bill's New Song
  • Everybody Dance
We should get a really nice DVD from the performance. Everybody played extremely well - and trumpeter/French hornist Jeff Stockham was particularly on fire!

Here's a glimpse of the stage during a piano solo, courtesy of Dennis Chapdelaine, a friend from (gasp!) kindergarten days.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Lights, Camera, Swing...

The August 3 gig will be filmed, it turns out. Since our local PBS affiliate will be taping other acts for later presentation on that channel, we were able to line up their camera staff to shoot some footage of our gig. So if you want to be in pictures, stop by and enjoy the free show!

Ah, the grandiose ideas that grow in my mind! Not only will we release a double CD of the set, there is a good chance that we may have an accompanying DVD. Certainly we already have about two hours of video footage of the rehearsals and recording sessions. It's an interesting documentary (at least to me) of the creative process, even if a number of key moments were never caught on camera.

For August 3, however, we will have to tightly script the show and hope for good performances. So far the set list includes the following:
  • Haunted Landscape
  • How Good It Is
  • The Lingering Questions
  • Inheriting a Parable
  • The Last Word
  • Bill's New Song
  • Everybody Dance
Well, we will see what happens! Time to tune up my chops, so I can keep up with the guys.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Looks like we have all of the music recorded for the project. There's a pile of it: probably twenty-two tunes. Soon I'll sift through the various "takes" of each tune. Then we'll get to mixing it in the late summer.

In the meantime, I'll take a quintet to the Scranton Jazz Festival to present some of the music. The gig is set for Sunday, August 3, at 12:30 p.m. The band will be great: Tony Marino on bass, Tom Whaley on drums, Jeff Stockham on trumpet and French horn, and Mike Carbone on saxophones.

Stay tuned for more updates!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Road Test

We had a blast yesterday! Al Hamme brought the founding members of the Quartet together for a Father's Day concert in nearby Johnson City, NY. As part of our set, Tony, Tom, Al, and I played four of the new tunes to a very appreciative audience. Thanks, Al, for the gig, and for insisting that we play this music.

A few of the random comments:
  • "Iona Morning is a wonderful piece . . . so full of joy! I will be humming the melody all day."
  • "This or That out-Monks Thelonious!"
  • "Everybody Dance took me back to the thrill of Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. My feet were tapping. Thanks for that great tune."
It's gratifying to know the tunes can stand on their own musical terms. The players really enjoy them, and the audience responds.

The trick will be to offer them as spiritual prayers, without becoming preachy. It does affect the room when somebody introduces me as a minister, or if I talk too much about Jesus in a secular concert setting. Hmm...

Friday, June 6, 2008

Big News - we have received a grant!

We have received word that the Louisville Institute is supporting our "Psalms Without Words" project with a generous grant. The Institute is a grant-making organization of the Lilly Endowment, based on the campus of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.

Here's the summary of the grant, as summarized on the Institute's website:
  • My proposal is to explore how instrumental music may be an emerging resource for Biblically-based prayer. It is my intent to draw upon the fruits of my 2006 Sabbatical Grant for Pastoral Leaders, to develop my work from that sabbatical in a form that is useful for church and synagogue, and to reflect theologically on what we might discover about the potential and power of instrumental music for renewing the people of faith. Specifically this project will convene four collaborative gatherings of musicians who regularly play liturgical jazz. We will interpret and record a large selection of the psalms without words that I composed during my sabbatical. Throughout this process, we will reflect together theologically on instrumental music as a form of prayer. I will conclude the project with a writing retreat, when I plan to compose a series of essays that discuss the discoveries and insights that have continued to emerge through this process.
This is wonderful news, so stay tuned. This will push the project fast-forward, and we'll have much to share in the near future.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Video Clips

Here is a fun video from some recent rehearsals of our new music. The tune is "Everybody Dance," my jazz version of Psalm 150. The musicians include Al Hamme on sax, Jeff Stockham on trumpet and French horn, Shawn McGloin on bass, and Ron Vincent on drums:

See also the video clip below. It's a solo piano version of "Krystallnacht" that I played at the Amistad Chapel, in the national headquarters of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, OH. I give a quick explanation of the tune's origin to my friend Cliff Aerie, who hosted the performance while our band was on tour:

Saturday, March 15, 2008

On playing music with freedom

Here is an old musician's joke: "Do you know why they call it free jazz?"

"Because that's what it pays."

Nevertheless, one of the cool aspects of this project is the inclusion of about a half-dozen tunes in the genre of free jazz. This is improvised music that is not restricted by tempo, tonality, or niceness. These pieces are a departure from the the way we normally approach our music, and they have been an interesting addition to our musical diet.

We have two new sound clips on the blog. The first clip offers some of my thoughts on free jazz, and why it fits the greater plan of the project. The second clip is a brief interview with bassist Tony Marino, our resident subversive. He shares some of his observations on free playing, particularly in his extensive experience with jazz master David Liebman. It's a short clip, but deeply insightful.

The creation of the free pieces has been an intensely satisfying part of the Psalms Without Words project, simply because the music is so honest. As we work our way through the new music, we are learning to let the music fly, without preconditions, restrictions, or unnecessary editing.

And this is how prayer is to be, as well. I've grown increasingly convinced that the primary reason why many psalms are never included in the church's liturgy is because they refuse to play it safe. They don't "clean up well." Some of them don't end well.

In a few days, we will gather on Good Friday to hear Jesus pray the opening words of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The question is harsh, but is a deeply appropriate question from the cross. The question cannot be answered quickly. Nor can it deny the considerable pain that prompts it.

Give a listen to the clips. Prepare yourself for an album that includes some of the most honest music that you may ever hear.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Live or Memorex?

Last week's concert went extremely well. The music was cooking, the crowd was large, and the musicians felt good about it.

One of our friends brought a neighbor to the concert. She was trying to compute the experience: jazz - in a church - all of it based on scripture. At times, she wasn't sure if she should be praying, listening, praising, or studying the Psalms. One thing was for sure, she said. "Those Presbyterians in the pews should have been tapping their feet!"

And then we noticed something incredible: at least a half dozen people reading Bibles while we played. That has to be a first for a jazz concert.

Jeff Stockham blew the roof off the place. He's one of the few French horn players who plays some jazz on that instrument. It's always a lot of fun to have him play with the band.

The music is coming together well. We are looking forward to getting a good recording of it - - and there's a lot to record!

More later. Stay warm out there!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Play that horn

This Sunday, we will play a concert of the new music at my church, the First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, PA. The musicians will be Jeff Stockham on trumpet and French horn, Al Hamme on sax, Shawn McGloin on bass, and the venerable Ron Vincent on drums. These are serious cats who have played with greats like Thelonious Monk Jr., Gerry Mulligan, Slam Stewart, and Natalie Cole. Each one is also a dear friend who has played my music before.

Once a composer writes down the music on the page (or in my case, the computer), one of the next questions is what instrumentation to use. Melodies sound different on different horns, of course, and it's important to keep things diversified to maintain the listener's interest.

I love the creativity of this particular group of musicians. Jeff has recorded on a couple of my albums, and lifted my "Stand On Your Head" CD to a higher plane. Give a listen to some of the sound clips by clicking here.

After the concert, we'll have a bite to eat and explore the music some more. Perhaps we'll even take a first attempt at recording some of it. One thing is for sure: it will be a hot afternoon on a very cold day!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Interview with Al Hamme and Clips of the Music

Hi everybody -

Al brought his arsenal of saxophones to a rehearsal today. We worked through more of the music, and began to prepare for a "first pass" that we'll do in the recording studio.

As we talked about this project, we decided to turn on the tape recorder, and three audio excerpts of our conversation are here on the blog. You can click them on the right, or click here to hear the first clip.

He speaks candidly about the "psalms without words," names a few of his favorites, and talks about the spiritual impact of the music. I discussed the inspiration behind some of these tunes, and we reflected on the miles we've traveled with the Presbybop Quartet.

Give them a listen - you'll have a rare opportunity to hear the musicians thinking about their work behind the scenes.

Also included are three clips of rehearsal takes of the music. Look to the right column and click on one of the titles.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A few words of introduction

It began with a word in the margin of my Bible: selah. My Sunday School teachers told me not to read it out loud. Apparently they had heard from somebody in charge that it was an unnecessary word, an undecipherable smudge from an earlier edition. So they taught us to skip over selah whenever we saw it printed among the psalms. We never asked what it meant or what it was doing in the margins. If we had asked, no one would have been able to tell us.

While the Hebrew word selah has never been adequately translated, scholars now concede that it was some kind of ancient musical direction. In the days before tones and rhythms were written down, selah is a clue that something more than spoken words were happening as the psalms were prayed. There was music that existed off the page - and it was as important to the Jewish prayers as the texts. Yet as the psalms were published in subsequent editions of the Bible, they became texts that lost their tunes.

In the generations that followed, the faithful created tunes to accompany the psalms. While the original tunes of ancient Israel are lost to us, their musical descendants are not. We have Sephardic Jewish tones, Orthodox Christian settings, and Gregorian chants. The Protestant Reformers bequeathed us with the publications of their musical settings of these prayers. Countless composers have constructed music to accompany the prayers of Israel for the assembly of faithful believers. Psalmody is alive and well, and growing in some corners of the ecumenical church.

Yet my hunch is that selah has remained a marginal word. Instrumental music has never been valued by the church and temple as much as the holy script. Music was not originally deemed important enough to be notated along with the texts of the psalms. Or if it was, the clergy decided very early that the music was secondary to the Word – thus establishing a paradigm that still gets played out among the professional staffs of countless churches.

What’s more, there are many psalms that are never sung, much less prayed or read. Perhaps they are too honest for most North American churchgoers. Not feeling welcome in the church, the Bible’s laments slipped out the back door of the sanctuary unnoticed, and wandered into the roadhouses of blues bands and early folk musicians. Meanwhile, back in the pastor’s office, if an occasional unpleasant verse appeared (say, like Psalm 104:35a), it was expelled from the lectionary as if it were a pebble in the oatmeal. Downstairs in the choir room, somebody sanded the splinters out of the unfinished prayers of the Psalter (“how long, O Lord?”), leaving behind smooth petitions that resolve in pleasant tonalities. The passion of most psalms was domesticated, lest the Psalmist hurl a rock through the stained glass of a cautious church.

ll of this was playing in my imagination as I began a pastoral sabbatical in the summer of 2006. I was hungry to explore the psalms as the primary resource for praying with God. I began to listen anew to the texts - and behind them - to hear what musical sounds might once again lift them off the page. In my imagination, I was specifically listening for instrumental music that would resonate most closely with the psalm texts, without harnessing it as mere “accompaniment.” Selah! Let the music speak to God in its own tongue! The notated sounds in this musical collection are the result of what I heard during that time. They are truly “Psalms Without Words,” and are offered as a model of instrumental music as a form of biblically-shaped prayer.

Thanks to a generous sabbatical grant from the Louisville Institute, I was able to visit two psalm-shaped communities – a Benedictine community in New Mexico and a Reformed congregation in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. These are thriving communities in barren landscapes. Their geographical settings were as instructive as their devotional practices. I kept asking two questions: How does it sound to praise and lament in places of sparseness and extremity? How does one pray in the full range of human expression, with honesty and passion, without any need to play it safe in God’s presence?

Welcome to the new blog

Thanks for checking out this site. Over the next few months, I will posting my plans to record a new collection of music. The project is called "Psalms Without Words." Keep checking back for regular updates as the project unfolds!