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Canterbury Jazz Mass (feat. Christ Church Cathedral Choir)

Theodicy Jazz Collective is committed to making justice real through the creative, spiritual work of making music in community. The group believes that music has the power to promote peace and justice in society and that the jazz ideals of diversity, flexibility, and listening can help the church thrive in our rapidly changing world. Inspired by jazz, blues, gospel, traditional hymns, and world music, Theodicy has been featured at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Trinity Wall Street, Canterbury Cathedral, on National Public Radio, at Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale Universities, Oberlin Conservatory, and in communities across England and the US from Massachusetts to Mississippi, Los Angeles to London.

In this first album, Theodicy seeks to explore the ways that tradition can be embraced and honored with a creative spirit, engaging the ancient rites of the church, traditional hymns, and standard pieces of the Anglican and Episcopal liturgy. For this recording, Theodicy is joined by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, Ohio. The Cathedral Choir is an ensemble of auditioned professional and volunteer choristers who sing at weekly Sunday morning services, monthly services of Evensong, and other major liturgical observances in the church year, offering a range of choral literature from the Anglican cathedral tradition, the African American folk tradition, newly written works, and idioms from other cultures. The Cathedral, located in downtown Cincinnati, is committed to vibrant worship, service to the under-privileged, and collaboration with the arts community.

The album opens with The Canterbury Jazz Mass, a piece commissioned by Canterbury Cathedral in 2011, composed by the ensemble’s alto saxophone player William Z. Cleary (the Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei) and piano and clarinet player, Rev. Andrew K. Barnett (the Kyrie). Theodicy made the uncommon choice to use the Latin text rather than the English, in part because of the musicality of the ancient language, but also because of the way it allows us to reach deep into tradition, valuing different historical moments in the life and evolution of the church. Noting that even this ancient “Latin” rite of the mass engages two different languages (the Kyrie is in Greek, while the remaining movements are in Latin), it is clear that there is a longstanding tradition of combining a plurality of voices while allowing the church to embrace and be shaped by the surrounding culture.

The Mass opens with a prelude that sets the tone for worship and introduces the various voices of the ensemble, leading into the Kyrie, with the simple, confessional prayer for the ages: Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. The music is constructed to correspond to these three pleas, opening with a bluesy, sorrowful cry to the Lord that invites us to an honest humility in our place and time. The transition to the ethereal character of the “Christ have mercy,” reminds us of our own finitude in the face of this mysterious person, both human and divine, that we will always fail to fully comprehend. The piece then returns to the opening theme, situating us back in our fully human world, still crying out for mercy in our daily, imperfect lives.

From this place of honesty and humility, the Gloria stirs up a spirit of praise through an upbeat, big band arrangement with full choral and ensemble participation throughout. The movement culminates in an enormous “Amen!” that hearkens back the longstanding tradition of sacred jazz compositions, echoing melodic lines from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, namely the beloved movement, “Come Sunday.”

The Sanctus and Benedictus are combined in one track, with the choir intimating the sacred encounter, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts; Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!” when the band picks up the melody, expanding its rhythms, and ultimately proclaiming “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The Mass concludes with the Agnus Dei, bringing the choir and band back together to invoke the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” again calling for mercy but now from a major key, more confident than before. As the movement continues, it culminates in the prayer that God would “grant us peace,” utilizing a pure-toned, sung counterpoint, characteristic of the sound of the Anglican music tradition for which the piece was composed, evoking a sense of innocence and forgiveness.

The Mass helps us understand that tradition is not simply the “old” version of something, but it is a living process by which we integrate new insights into the unfolding story of the church over time, equipping us to respond to our own changing contexts and the questions that arise in new historical moments. Tired of “traditional versus contemporary” liturgy debate which so often distracts from the issues at the heart of communal worship, Theodicy seeks not to abandon tradition, but expand it by including voices and styles from the margins of the liturgical canon, bringing them into the center of worship. Rather than simply dropping a jazz ensemble into the hymns of a traditional worship service, Theodicy engages the entire liturgy, hoping to infuse the structures laid out in the Book of Common Prayer with creativity, improvisation, and community. Rather than seeing the BCP as a set of limitations, the group engages it like a jazz chart—a structure and scaffold with room for new creations each time it is encountered.

Following the Mass, the album continues to explore ways that tradition is the grounds for innovation by bookending Mozart’s cherished “Ave Verum Corpus” (performed here by duo voice and piano to maintain greater continuity of sound) with a reinterpretation of the piece for jazz ensemble. By situating the renowned composition in a new musical context, the listener is provided a fresh perspective and new insights into the piece.

Theodicy’s commitment to the theological project of revisiting traditional texts with contemporary lenses is exemplified in the Doxology, where this utterly recognizable song is introduced with familiar piano voicing, but surprises the congregation with the overt shift to a pure celebration of the “God from whom all blessings flow,” providing music that strives to match the exultant lyrics.

The closing hymn, “God Comes to Us as One Unknown,” takes the beloved hymn tune “Repton” and pairs it with Timothy Dudley-Smith’s 1984 hymn text that articulates the very ideas that Theodicy seeks to explore through music: the mystery of the divine, the tension of living in an imperfect world, the expansion of the language and poetry of the church, and the paradox of belief and faith in the twenty-first century. 

Concluding the album with a benediction and postlude, the blessing “May the peace that passes understanding be with you,” is set in an unusual 7/4 time signature, contributing to a sense of uncertainty that, indeed, challenges our intuitive and our rational understanding of the music. The piece kicks into a swung, 4/4 time, charging, “Let us go forth in the name of God, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit,” allowing for greater comprehension as we are sent into the world with joy. 

This creative, playful sending is underscored with an entirely improvised postlude on the well-known tune of “Down By the Riverside,” with the implied lyrics that we are to “lay down our sword and shield,” and “study war no more.” These ambiguous lyrics leave us not with answers, but raise more questions about tradition, innovation, music, and community as they call us back to the song’s roots in the African American folk tradition with lyrics that challenge and inspire us to the difficult commitment of following Jesus, laying down our own weapons of power and privilege, whatever they may be. This shift in focus foreshadows the next phase of Theodicy’s theological and musical project, which engages a greater diversity of musical traditions, raising questions of identity, community, power, justice, and inclusivity that the group will explore in its next album, Jazz Vespers.


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