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Music Notes: jazz mass at an offbeat church 

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The 27th Psalm has never sounded quite like this.

"False witnesses rise against me," sings the soprano, "breathing out fury." A rollicking piano passage follows close behind her.

"Of you my heart has spoken, seek His face . . ." Enter a fast, light drum riff.

"Hide not your face . . ." A trumpet blares a hot retort.

"I will sing and make music to the Lord."

That biblical exhortation is here reaping an unsuspected dividend--a "jazz mass," in which saxophones and trumpets, straight-ahead ensemble jazz, bring a new wrinkle to traditional Eucharist liturgy.

The concept is enough to make veteran churchgoers squirm. Hip recastings of Agnus Dei and Nunc Dimittus? Sacrosanct scatting? These are not subversive concepts, according to the mass's composer, Andy Tecson. "Some people will relate to Bach, and other people will relate to jazz or blues," says the 32-year-old composer. "Jazz expresses the same emotions as any other music, it just does it in a different way."

How different becomes apparent as Tecson's hand-picked musicians launch into a freewheeling Kyrie, the instruments bouncing off the more deliberate singing of the cantor and the congregation. Then comes an up-tempo Gloria: "Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth," sing the assembled worshipers, while horns ripple quietly above them, then break out into extended improvisation.

At every turn, Tecson has tried to be faithful to the Lutheran liturgy he grew up with. And the Reverend Jan Erickson-Pearson thinks he's gotten his rites right: "He takes the very traditional structure of the liturgy and enlivens it with sounds that build on the structure and develop the meaning. It's tremendously evocative. The sense of yearning--struggle, doubt, pain, joy, celebration."

Erickson-Pearson is pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in the Loop, which will house the jazz mass this Saturday afternoon. A jazz aficionado herself, she is sensitive to the music's ecclesiastical uses: "When we live and when we worship, we don't do it according to a blueprint. We live like jazz plays. It captures the spirit of our lives. And if it can do that in clubs on Saturday night, it can do that in church on Sunday."

This weekend's performance, designed to dovetail with the Jazz Fest in Grant Park, will mark the second time the jazz mass has played at Christ the King. Layperson Rebecca Mestelle, now a big fan of the piece, admits to being skeptical before she heard it last year. Her mind went back to the "folk masses" of the 60s and 70s, where church members who had mastered a few chords on their guitars duly wrung them dry every Sunday.

But Andy Tecson has recruited a group of polished Chicago musicians to play his composition, including Howard Levy on piano, Bobby Lewis on trumpet, bass player John Whitfield, drummer Jerry Coleman, and vocalist Lisa Brown. Tecson himself plays tenor sax, while Ken Jandes, the man who taught him music composition in high school, joins him on alto sax.

Tecson's early years had all the makings of a professional music career. He spent his third year of college blowing a saxophone in Munich, then came home to play with local celebrities like Steve Goodman and Jethro Burns.

And in 1980, he got his law degree.

"There was no question in my mind about being an attorney," says Tecson, who practices law in his father's firm. "Now I have the freedom to write music when I want to write music. I don't have to go out and play ten jobs that I don't want to play. I feel like I'm just having the best of both worlds."

Over the last few years, Tecson has looked for ways to bring his religious convictions into his music. "All music can be spiritual," he maintains. "But it's not always easy to create a spiritual environment in a club, where people are more interested in drinking."

There's a problem to composing a jazz mass: How do you involve a large congregation in a music form that inspires individualism, rhythmic fragmentation? For Tecson, the solution is to keep the melodic forms simple. "You don't have to have something full of 16th notes. Some of the great improvisers have said less is more. Someone like Miles Davis will play for 16 bars with just a few notes. With the right placement and feeling, it can be a masterpiece."

Tecson's intentions for his own work are more modest: "I wrote melodies that I thought would be singable. If the person can sing a hymn, they should be able to sing this as well."

Though the new melodies are more complicated than hymns, there's usually an instrument--most often the trumpet--playing the melody line. And the trickier melodic figures fall to vocalist Brown. In any case, Tecson's strength is his writing for instruments: Lewis and Levy, in particular, have ideal settings for their virtuosity.

In some ways, Christ the King in the Loop is the ideal setting for an offbeat service. "It doesn't look like a church," explains Erickson-Pearson, "and it doesn't act like a church."

For most of its life, Christ the King camped out in various office buildings in the Loop. But in 1985, the church moved into an abandoned Dearborn Street printing shop in Printers Row, renovated, and retitled it "Grace Place." (The Lutherans share the building with Grace Episcopal Church.) The sanctuary itself is an intimate loft with exposed beams and piping, where fishplates covering the beams double as crosses. Architect Larry Booth's design includes a ball-and-slab altar that might have adorned a Frank Lloyd Wright chapel. "Here is the church," reads a pastoral newsletter, "where is the steeple?" The answer is nowhere.

Erickson-Pearson says: "People here don't feel the pressure they felt in other churches to be 'normal,' to have families. They don't have to be superpious. They feel free to be themselves." Most of the congregation, in fact, is young and unmarried; the pastor herself, though a wife and expectant mother, is only 32.

Does a freer crowd guarantee a warmer response to Tecson's work? Mestelle thinks so: "Once you start to settle down and have a family, a lot of the things that didn't bother you before start to bother you."

"I'm sure there are a few people who think [a jazz mass] is nuts," says Erickson-Pearson. "But they just stay home."

Tecson's jazz mass begins at 3 PM Saturday, September 5, at Christ the King Lutheran Church, 637 S. Dearborn. Admission is free; call 939-3720 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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