“I think it’s an album that people will still speak about in ten years’ time because it’s so odd”, James Taylor of the British jazz-funk band the James Taylor Quartet (JTQ) expressed to me as we sat on his balcony overlooking the River Medway, just a stone’s throw away from Rochester Cathedral where Taylor frequently worships.
The album to which he referred, and on which our discussion was based, was the innovative and unique The Rochester Mass (2015). The oddness of the album was fashioned through the collaboration between JTQ and the Rochester Cathedral Choir: The Rochester Mass was the culmination of a relationship which began in 2013 with a concert at Rochester Cathedral. The fusion of JTQ’s well-known jazz-funk sound with the voices of the choir established its strangeness even further through Taylor’s setting of Latin text from the liturgical mass and his experimentation with classical music. The collaboration brought together diverse traditions to create a musical melting pot in which new possibilities were formed. I delve into the strange sound world of the album, gaining an understanding of what made this fusion of styles so unique and innovative. Beyond its musical qualities, the origins of the collaboration in Taylor’s spiritual experience, and his intentions for the album to be an “artistic statement”, endow The Rochester Mass with particular significance.
James Taylor has spearheaded his Quartet since the break-up of his former band The Prisoners in 1986. The Prisoners was firmly cemented in the ‘mod’ revival scene,2 and performed in venues like the 100 Club on Oxford Street which was known for performances by punk-rock bands. Taylor explained that their gigs were attended by mods, punks and psychobillies, and strongly emphasised the working-class roots of this scene. JTQ adopted this fanbase and gained success with the release of their first album Mission Impossible (1987) which featured funk arrangements of 1960s film songs, played in a rough, up-tempo and punk-like style, with the prominent and distinctive sound of Taylor’s Hammond organ.
The ‘do-it-yourself’ punk aesthetic dictated the band’s approach to recordings and ensured its reputation as a highly-energised live outfit. ‘Blow Up’, the album’s first single, was championed by NME and John Peel, and appeared on Peel’s ‘Festive Fifty’ chart for 1987 the band was heavily involved in the ‘indie’ scene, particularly in Manchester, and played at venues like The International and The Boardwalk. JTQ was closely linked with the Acid Jazz style which emerged at the end of the 80s, characterised by its mix of jazz, soul, funk and disco; the band took advantage of this association with albums which incorporated horns and vocalists. Commercial success came with a top-thirty position in the UK charts for Supernatural Feeling (1993), whilst In The Hand of the Inevitable (1995) remains the band’s biggest selling album. JTQ took steps away from the mainstream music industry towards the end of the 90s and now mostly perform in high-profile jazz venues like Ronnie Scott’s and at jazz festivals in the Mediterranean.
The Rochester Mass planted its seed when Taylor began to worship frequently at Rochester Cathedral around the time of his father’s illness: the album is dedicated to his father who passed away in 2013. Taylor explained the solace he found in attending cathedral services and listening to the choir: “I couldn’t experience (my father’s illness) and so I lost myself in the church music and that opened up whole vistas of beautiful music that I didn’t even know existed”. During this time, Taylor also joined Rochester Choral Society with which he sang choral music and became interested in “that whole musical world”. The influence of classical music inspired his 2013 album, Closer to the Moon, in which he explored new sounds with instruments like the harp, celeste, vibes, tubular bells and other orchestral-based percussion.4 Although Taylor’s experience of choral and classical music fueled his musical creativity, he expressed that the desire to write a mass and collaborate with the cathedral choir grew from more of a philosophical concept than a musical idea: “there’s something in the message of the church…that would be really welcome in modern life”. Taylor sought to spread the spirituality he had gained whilst listening to the choir through presenting his music alongside the sounds of the choral tradition.
The combination of the cathedral choir with JTQ’s jazz-funk sound positions the album as part of the overlapping sacred and secular musical expressions prevalent in jazz and other African-American musical styles, particularly gospel music. The music of the black church in the United States has influenced and been influenced by popular music throughout the twentieth century. In Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion, Jason Bivins argues that “jazz has not just been in conversation with religious developments in the United States, but shaped and drawn on them as more than simply their musical accompaniment”.5 Many Jazz players believe in the intimacy between the music they play and religion, subscribing to a belief in music’s ability to enable musicians to “encounter some kind of musical enlightenment or becoming”. Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts had a similar origin to The Rochester Mass, as an idea which emerged from the death of Ellington’s parents. The Sacred Concerts involved original compositions performed by Ellington’s band in numerous sacred and secular venues around the world between 1965 and 1973. They were developed out of Ellington’s deep religious beliefs and represented his personal statement concerning universal themes of freedom, love, family and an interdenominational belief in God.
For Taylor, the spirituality of jazz was lost when the music crossed the Atlantic to Britain and established itself in the conservative middle-classes. The musician sought to reinvigorate a sense of spirituality into British jazz through the sound of cathedral choristers: “(the Anglican cathedral) is our church, this is us being spiritual…” Although African-American music has pervaded the musical expression of some Christian denominations in Britain, the music of the Anglican church, particularly cathedral music, has remained largely classically-based; in addition, the chorister sound has very rarely been drawn on by popular music styles. Rochester Cathedral Choir forms part of a sacred choral tradition in Britain which dates back to the seventh century; the cathedral choir at Rochester traces its roots back to the cathedral’s foundation in AD 604. Cathedral choirs are renowned for the distinctive sound of young choristers, and provide music for daily liturgical services, including evensong, matins, and the Eucharist mass from which Taylor took the Latin text for The Rochester Mass. 9 The music sung at these services is heavily embedded in the classical music tradition, with a large repertoire of canticle settings and masses extending back to the fifteenth century.
The sacred music of twentieth-century composers, however, was often inspired by popular music styles, particularly jazz. More recent examples include Will Todd’s Mass in Blue (2003) and Bob Chilcott’s A Little Jazz Mass (2006). These masses differ greatly from Taylor’s The Rochester Mass: Chilcott’s and Todd’s masses are notated and are performed from this basis.
Despite being written primarily for the purpose of concert performance, these masses are also suitable for liturgical use due to their need for only a small number of instrumental forces. Although The Rochester Mass was notated – purely for the aid of the choir – the musical ‘work’ exists primarily in the form of the recorded album. Taylor’s mass was also not intended to be used in a liturgical setting: the movements of the mass are presented out of order. The usual order of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei is displaced and movements are repeated more than once.
The significance of The Rochester Mass, in part, lies in the disparities between the performance practices of JTQ and Rochester Cathedral Choir. The punk aesthetic of JTQ’s jazz-funk sound appears to be at extreme odds with the tradition of classical music prevalent in Anglican cathedral choirs. One of the most important qualities of this project, as Taylor was keen to stress, was its collaborative nature. Taylor emphasised that the fusion of disparate traditions meant that “there was never gonna be anything but a lot of compromise”. He highlighted this point with his belief that “the real key to what made (the album) a success musically was the kids and their spirit”. A number of significant questions arise from a consideration of this unique pairing: how did these different styles mould and transform each other in the collaboration? In what ways did the incorporation of choral voices influence Taylor’s music? How was the composition process shaped by the need for his musical ideas to be translated into notation for the choir to read? To what extent did the use of notation lessen the spontaneity and punk aesthetic of JTQ’s approach to performing and recording? How important was the Latin text in writing the music?
The collaboration between JTQ and Rochester Cathedral Choir began a couple of years before the album’s release. The first performance took place on 22nd June 2013; the collaboration continued in 2014 with performances at Queen Elizabeth Hall and Rochester Cathedral. These concerts were used as musical testing grounds in which to gain a sense of the possibilities of the collaboration. Taylor explained that there was a lot of experimentation with many ideas tried and tested but they mostly ruled out the ideas that would not work. One of the biggest compromises for Taylor was that he felt the sound of the Hammond organ, his trademark instrument, did not compliment the sound of the treble line: he replaced the Hammond with the more “ethereal” sound of the Fender Rhodes.
The concert in 2013 was a simple collaboration, using the cathedral girls’ choir to sing the melodies of Taylor’s songs; the concerts in 2014 featured the full cathedral choir singing arrangements which were more fully worked out. Taylor adapted a song from Closer to the Moon called ‘Nightwalk’, adding the words of the ‘Kyrie’ to the song’s melody and writing additional choral parts. The contrafactum approach undertaken with the ‘Kyrie’ was also adopted for ‘Sanctus Part One’ and ‘Agnus Dei Part Two’. These tracks adhere to the band’s traditional jazz-funk sound and remain closely bound to the songs from which they were adapted. With the voices replacing instrumental parts, many of the vocal lines are extremely rhythmic and the melodies are occasionally angular. The Latin text often took a secondary role in the composition of the album: in addition to the movements being presented out of their liturgical order, the words are often obscured by the instrumental-style writing.
In contrast to the contrafactum songs, ‘Sanctus Part Two’ reveals Taylor’s sound world at its most strange: the track presents elements of different styles together in a way which allows them to fight alongside each other in constant conversation. The movement was composed entirely at the piano and later arranged for the choir and band. The opening of the song was inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis (1959): the movement begins with dissonance and dramatic tension, followed by resolved ascending sequences. After the opening choral entries, the instruments of the band fight for prominence through improvisatory motifs, whirling around and responding to the movements and gestures of their counterparts. Taylor explained his desire to convey a kind of “trippy” and “transcendental” feel which he drew from the minimalism of Steve Reich. In the arrangement of the song for the band, Taylor sought to imitate the sound of an orchestra: he explained that “it was an attempt at something orchestral and symphonic”. The movement is expansive in its scope, combining a number of contrasting sections and characterised by its constant building up and lessening of tension, switching between chordal passages and sections of unison melody, including a section for solo treble and electric guitar. The instruments and voices combine in a diverse array of rich and contrasting textures.
The mass was performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall and Rochester Cathedral before the album was recorded on 6th July 2015. Taylor explained that “by the time we came to record it…it was gigged up and rehearsed and everyone knew what they were supposed to do”. Taylor acknowledged that his band’s usual spontaneous, punk aesthetic in the studio may have been compromised through the incorporation of the choir: the movements of the mass had been fully composed before entering the studio and there was very little room for manoeuvre creatively. This was partly because of a lack of time in the studio which required the tracks to be recorded quickly. There was still much space, however, for the incorporation of improvised solos, particularly on the Flugelhorn, Saxophone and Flute. One of the challenges during the improvised sections was the communication between Taylor and the choir’s director of music. Communication was important throughout the recording session, and in the concerts, but took on particular importance during these sections when the choir was not singing. The unpredictable length of the improvisations required the director of music to be ready to bring the choir back in on its cue. Taylor argues that there was still a great deal of spontaneity despite the adherence to a script: “it was pretty vibey in the studio…we captured something exciting”. The majority of the movements were recorded in a couple of takes with very few overdubs. The overdubs were often required for the re-recording of the choral parts. An issue arose in this process due to the desire of the choir not to wear headphones. While re-recording the choral parts, the band’s track was played through speakers for the choir to sing with. The original recording of the band was picked up on the mics of the choir and ended up on the overdub. Taylor argued that this spillage of sounds into the wrong channels is often what makes a recording interesting and adds to the raw sound which he values in recordings.
Through the fusion of disparate traditions on The Rochester Mass, Taylor attempted to highlight divisions in society and offer a bridge between those divisions. The musician explained: “I see the country as a bit lost and I see the church as having something to offer”. For Taylor, the music of the church carries with it the church’s spiritual message that all humans are the same. Taylor also sought to bridge divisions through his experimentation with classical music: he expressed his belief that “all music is one – and if you’re really true to that then you can knock down barriers”. Taylor asserted that music has the power “to pull us together…the wider you cast your net, the more chance you’ve got of inclusivity”. One of the ways Taylor believes society is divided is in terms of class: “the whole question about class goes through British society in such an interesting way and how it reveals its head in terms of music in its identity. And (The Rochester Mass) really addresses that…it is an attempt at saying ‘music is one, humans are one…let’s cut the bullshit’”.
Taylor also raised the issue of class divisions in an interview with Blues and Soul Magazine soon after the album’s release:
In England, society is massively divided. The upper classes, (classical music) is their thing, they’re not here and we’re not allowed there…it’s experimenting and questioning why society is divided in that way. If music can’t sort that out, I think nothing can.
Taylor’s argument stems from the belief that genres are not simply defined by their particular musical sounds but are influenced to a large degree by cultural values and traditions. As Kevin Fellezs argues, genre is “a logic through which ideas about race, gender and social class are created, debated and performed through musical sound and discourse”. For the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, music is a mirror which reflects an individual’s social standing: “nothing more clearly affirms one’s class, nothing more infallibly classifies, than tastes in music”. Bourdieu believed that the ability to consume and acquire cultural capital, including music, relies on a corresponding embodied capital (dispositions) which is acquired through early socialisation and determined by one’s class.13 Using Bourdieu’s ideas, the authors of Culture, Class, Distinction argue that an understanding of culture is essential in order to establish the nature of class boundaries in contemporary Britain. According to the findings of their research, the musical field is characterised by contested positions and “is the most
Karen Lawler, ‘James Taylor Quartet: Chorus of approval’, Blues and Soul, 2015, divided, contentious, cultural field…” Classical music has traditionally stood in opposition to popular and folk music, based primarily on class divisions – their research claims that “classical music evokes hierarchy and power: the ghostly memories of legitimate cultural capital”. Culture, Class, Distinction asserts that classical music still carries “loaded signifiers to the working classes” and remains a markedly middle-class taste. Richard Peterson has offered a contradictory viewpoint, claiming a collapse of divisions between highbrow and lowbrow tastes with consumers in America instead becoming cultural omnivores, expanding their musical tastes across multiple genres.17 Although this may be true for a select few, there are key genre boundaries that are not crossed by listeners. As the research of Culture, Class, Distinction has shown: “the divide between contemporary and classical forms of music is rarely straddled”.
Returning to Taylor’s statement in Blues and Soul, it is important to consider his thoughts in terms of JTQ’s fanbase: what group constitutes the “we” Taylor refers to and who are the “they” that his group stands in opposition to? Where is the “here” that Taylor and his fans inhabit and where is the “there” that he and his fans are not allowed? What audience did Taylor wish to reach with this album? JTQ’s origins in the working-class London scene and the indie scene in Manchester seemingly stand in opposition to the nature of Taylor’s current musical standing. The group frequently perform at the high-profile and highly sophisticated London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, which targets a middle-class audience. Taylor explained that “Ronnie’s is an exclusive jazz joint where (the audience) spend fifty quid on a ticket and then they spend another hundred quid on dinner”. The performance of jazz at Ronnie Scott’s subscribes to the view of the music as “high art”, positing a far more exclusive identity than many classical music venues. Taylor, however, argued that the seeds of his album originated in a working-class expression. Indeed, Taylor stands in a strange position in British jazz: he explained that he has always been on the outside, acting as “the enfant terrible of the jazz world, taking the micky out of it and punching it from underneath and trying to light little fires to change that whole world”. Although The Rochester Mass stems from the band’s origins in working-class scenes, the album perhaps carries less weight than Taylor desired due to JTQ’s current position in the jazz world.
The Rochester Mass was received extremely well in the press, including by national newspapers The Sunday Times and The Independent. Reviews emphasised the novelty of the collaboration and its innovative fusion of styles: Hifi Pig Magazine lauded Taylor “for having the guts and foresight to recognise the possibilities of this potentially unholy alliance”. Another review saw the album as “a noble attempt at doing something new” and found it to be “a rewarding and very interesting listen”. Despite the additional positivity that jazz radio showed to the album, sales of the record were very few in comparison with previous JTQ releases. Taylor explained that this caused some tension with his record label: “they gave us 100% artistic freedom and then moaned about it because it didn’t sell”. Cherry Red Records asked Taylor to make another album of “pure funk, jazz-funk, to offset what they lost on (The Rochester Mass)”. Taylor’s album is significant as an “artistic statement”: his spiritual experience in cathedral services inspired the innovative fusion of styles and traditions on The Rochester Mass. Beyond its spiritual expression, the album is also a personal statement of Taylor’s links with the town of Rochester. Taylor explained: “I was born in this town…when I was a little boy, my mum used to take me to Rochester Cathedral…” Whilst The Rochester Mass was his personal statement, Taylor was very happy to produce a more “commercial” album for his label, acknowledging that the dialectic between making art and making money characterises the nature of cultural production in the music industry: “that experimental side of things is where it’s at and you need some sort of (financial) support to be able to do that”. Taylor explained that performing at corporate events which earn the band a large sum of money allows for him to fund the projects which may not fare as well commercially.
The Rochester Mass is the most recent example in the output of a band which has pushed the boundaries of jazz in Britain since the late 80s. Taylor explains that “jazz was dead in the early 80s…we repackaged the whole of British jazz – how the British music press looked at jazz – and said ‘this is hip’”. While perhaps exaggerating the influence of JTQ and bands of their ilk on British jazz, the band’s position on the edges of the mainstream music industry enabled Taylor to explore his musical creativity outside of the confines of genre categories. In Music Genres and Corporate Cultures, Keith Negus explains how genre is used as a marketing tool in the music industry to shape the creativity of musicians as well as the perceptions, expectations and listening habits of audiences. He argues that the music industry divides the “potentially fluid, multiple influences” of musicians and their music into distinct and separate categories.21 Establishing a position on the outskirts of the industry allows for a greater degree of freedom from commercial pressures and the confines of genre categories, and thus allows
for more opportunities to experiment with musical styles. The Rochester Mass emphasises the value of individual agency in pushing back against forces which seek to limit and categorise the creative output of musicians.
Reflecting on the impact of The Rochester Mass, Taylor acknowledged that the album may not have fully conveyed the philosophical message which had inspired his work. The strange sound world of the mass was an “alienating” factor which ensured its lack of record sales. Yet, Taylor has not lost hope that the album could still have a large impact in the future: “I don’t think it’s a dead album, I think it’s such an enigma”. The musician expressed his belief that jazz musicians will take inspiration from The Rochester Mass and begin to explore new musical ideas. Although that remains to be seen, Taylor continues to expand his musical creativity to form new and interesting sound worlds: his recent work with Audio Network, a company which sells music for advertising and films, has involved collaborations with orchestras and the fusion of his jazz-funk sound with classical styles. The collaboration with Rochester Cathedral Choir has also not yet reached its conclusion: Taylor has written a Latin Magnificat for the choir and the cathedral organ which is over an hour long. Looking forward to future projects, Taylor stated his uncertainty regarding his next steps: “I don’t know where I’m going musically at the moment and I’m not that bothered about it”. Yet, the Hammond Organ player continues to “push the envelope” in his various musical endeavours through his desire to explore new ideas and take inspiration from disparate traditions.