The Theodicy Jazz Collective is committed to making justice real through the creative, spiritual power of music. The group believes that music can 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 Canterbury Cathedral, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Washington National Cathedral, on National Public Radio, at Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale Universities, at the House of Bishops and General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and in communities from Massachusetts to Mississippi, Los Angeles to London.
Advent. Here, the days grow shorter and the darkness deeper. In many parts of the world, the cold drives us into our homes, away from our neighbors and community. For much of human history, this season of darkness led to introspection and expectations of returning light amidst dim candles and the quiet solitude of the long, cold night.
But in the twenty-first century, reflection can seem like an alternate reality while brightly colored advertisements flash on screens, loud music proclaims joy all over the world, and slashed prices promise increased comforts for our loved ones if we would just surround them with more, more, more stuff. We jump at the chance to look at 24-hour holiday movie marathons, so we have an excuse to turn away from 24-hour news cycles that assault us with images of frustration, pain, and despair.
Surely there must be another space--somewhere between or beyond the despair of darkness and the oblivious hope of commercial Christmas--where we can anticipate incarnation.
With the intention of creating this space, we open this album with a focus on Advent. Inviting listeners in, “Carol of the Bells” hearkens back to a time when bells called communities to worship, and the tune allows us to sit in the tensions of this season with complex meters and the uncommon pairing of a minor key with a dance rhythm. By retaining the original German language of “O Tannenbaum,” we strive to move away from the commercialization associated with “O Christmas Tree” and reclaim the original intent of the poem which allows us to see hope and strength in all creation, even in seasons of death and darkness. A lesser-known Advent hymn, “What is the Crying at Jordan?” holds us in the sorrow and struggle of waiting, without rushing to the relief of Christmas, enabling us to confess our complicity and pain. And from this place of waiting, perhaps the most beloved of Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” cries out that God would come and release the captive, liberate the oppressed, and convict the privileged; but by lending this plainchant melody an upbeat Afro-Cuban groove, we audibly encounter the durable, insistent hope found in marginalized cultures--a rebuke to the complacency or despair wrought by oppressive empires of history and systems of today.
Carol of the Bells, arranged by William Z. Cleary
O Tannenbaum, arranged by Jonathan Parker
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit, nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
Wie oft hat nicht zur Weihnachtszeit ein Baum von dir mich hoch erfeut!
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, dein Kleid will mich was lehren:
Die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit gibt Trost und Kraft zu jeder Zeit.
What is the Crying at Jordan?, arranged by Jason K. West (used by permission)
Words: Carol Christopher Drake; Music: St. Mark’s, Berkeley, Irish melody
What is the crying at Jordan? Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark our hearts and shut to mystery.
Who then shall stir in this darkness, prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal, in darkness we lie down blind hearted, seeing no light.
Lord, give us grace to awake us, to see the branch that begins to bloom;
In great humility is hid all heaven in a little room.
Now comes the day of salvation, in joy and terror the Word is born!
God comes as gift into our lives; oh, let salvation dawn!
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, arranged by William Z. Cleary
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here, until the One of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come Thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show and teach us in her ways go.
O come thou Dayspring from on high and cheer us by thy drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
The Prologue to the Gospel According to John, arranged by Ann Phelps
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
With this spoken word piece, we turn from Advent to incarnation: the radical action by which God became flesh among us. God saw this beautiful, flawed, complicated creation and manifest into the world, saying that this place--this earth, these bodies, this matter--matters. Not in the consumerist, materialistic way that holiday sales would have us believe, but in a profound way where the embodied experience of life is valued. To be poor and have nothing is a tragedy that matters to God. To see the earth wounded and lives shattered in the wake of those wounds is taken seriously by God.
Students of theology often ask the question, “How are we saved?” Various traditions gesture toward different moments. Some suggest it is when an individual makes a decision or comes to a certain belief. Others claim it is when Jesus died on a cross as an act of atonement in our stead. Still, others focus on the resurrection, when death was defeated for all. But in an incarnational theology, we wonder: What if the earth was created good from the beginning, and reclaimed as good and worthy when God chose to become flesh and live among us? What if salvation is neither about a history way back then nor about some unknowable, eternal future, but is experienced here and now? What if salvation happens in incarnation? We do not claim to know the answers, but we are intrigued by these questions.
So, we explore these questions through song. We announce the incarnation in a way that feels warmly familiar to many who have sung it from pews on Christmas Eve, beckoning “ye faithful” to come, and kicking into a calypso groove that announces that we are here to celebrate! Beyond humanity’s faithful, even the angels turn their attention to creation, with their otherworldly praise resounding through the earth’s plains and mountains, conveyed by setting “Angels We Have Heard on High” in an uncommon 5/4 meter and in a key that soars toward the heavens. Yet, with a turn to “In the Bleak Midwinter,” we ground ourselves again with the well-known but unsung lyrics that acknowledge the harsh realities of living in the world and articulate our struggle to feel we have enough to offer as we approach God. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” roots this extraordinary birth in Jesus’ deeply human family of Mary and Jesse and does so with warmer earth imagery that can be felt in this uplifting instrumental arrangement.
O Come, All Ye Faithful, arranged by Andrew K. Barnett
O come, all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant; O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold him, born to singing angels!
O come let us adore him...Christ the Lord!
Sing choirs of angels; sing in exultation; sing all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest!
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning; Jesus to Thee be all glory given!
Word of God, now in flesh appearing!
Angels We Have Heard on High, arranged by Jonathan Parker
Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strains:
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be which inspire your heavenly song?
See within a manger laid, Jesus Lord of heaven and earth.
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, sing with us our Savior’s birth!
In the Bleak Midwinter, arranged by Charlie Dye
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, arranged by William Z. Cleary
Finally, Christmas is at hand. We move from the grandiose scale of angels, mountains, and generations of the faithful to focus on one simple, small moment. A baby is born. It is the most mundane act. Every person has been born--it is one of the rare universal human experiences. But in its very commonness, it is miraculous. This moment infuses the most basic of realities with profound meaning. How can we encounter God here and now? How can we, in our small, beautiful, humble, magnificent lives, be Christ in this world and respond to the call of Christmas?
These questions are neither merely academic nor simply spiritual for the members of the Theodicy Jazz Collective. We titled this album Incarnatebecause we want to make these ideas and hopes real in the lives of the band members, the life of the Church, and beyond.
I, Ann, pondered these questions during my many frequent breaks from recording, as I would rush downstairs from the studio to nurse a new baby. As I sustained this tiny life with my very body, I was surrounded by the sounds of my friends making holy music above me, overwhelmed with gratitude for their ministry. As we communally contemplated the meaning of incarnation, this group committed to the ideals we articulate in the workshops and services that we travel to offer in parish churches, cathedrals, and educational institutions around the country. This group is dedicated to living these ideals, in every way it can, including supporting me in my maternity, honoring my baby and family, and inviting the stuff of real life to interrupt and inform our creative process.
These revelations rang through the room as we recorded “A Child is Born,” a jazz standard not typically considered a holiday favorite, but apt in its wonder at the extraordinary, ordinary blessing of a newborn baby. We felt these ideas when playing perhaps the most famous medieval melody, “Greensleeves,” most known for asking the question, “What child is this?” as it explores the nature of God, maintaining medieval musical traditions while introducing modern rhythms and contemporary instrumentation. We considered them in this uncommonly upbeat arrangement of the beloved “Silent Night” that is infused with a rare energy and excitement at beholding such a sacred miracle.
A Child is Born, arranged by Jonathan Parker
Now, out of the night, soft as the dawn, into the light,
This child, innocent child, soft as a fawn, this child is born.
One small heart, one pair of eyes, one work of art, here in my arms,
here he lies, trusting and warm, blessed this morn; a child is born.
What Child is This? (Greensleeves), arranged by William Z. Cleary
Silent Night, arranged by Jonathan Parker
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,
All around the mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar; heavenly hosts sing, “Alleluia!”
Christ the savior is born.
Real, tangible blessings are what incarnation is about. Salvation is here, now, and that is good news worth shouting from the mountaintops. So, let us go now into the world, sharing the real, present love of Christ incarnate.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, arranged by Sarah Politz
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere!
Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!
While shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens there shone a holy light.
The shepherds feared and trembled when, lo, above the earth,
Rang out the angel chorus that hailed our savior’s birth.
Down in a lowly manger the humble Christ was born,
And God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn!
Andrew K. Barnett, piano, organ, clarinet
William Z. Cleary, alto and soprano saxophone
Charlie Dye, drums, percussion
Dan Loomis, bass
Jonathan Parker, tenor saxophone, flute
Ann Phelps, vocals
Sarah Politz, trombone
Mike Wade, trumpet
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by the Clubhouse Studio, Rhinebeck, NY
Visual design by Ann Phelps and media assistance by Josh Geter
We give thanks for the incomparable staff at the Clubhouse who made this process an experience of joy and incarnation itself, for our family and friends who support the innumerable pilgrimages of a band in diaspora, and for the support of Andy and Heather Florance who made this project possible.