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'O Emmanuel' Composer Mixes In Jazz To Provide 'Respite' Within Traditional Hit




For two weeks after it debuted in November, an album titled "O Emmanuel" was number one on the Billboard Traditional Classical chart. It may indeed have roots in traditional texts and melodies of Advent, but not far into the recording you'll hear the strains of something else.


SIMON: That's J.J. Wright, pianist, conductor and composer who's behind this project. He joins us now from the studios of the BBC in Rome. Thanks very much for being with us.

J J WRIGHT: Thanks so much for having me, Scott. I appreciate it.

SIMON: Why bring jazz into this?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, I think jazz is a great way to introduce people and sacred music to a new way of conceiving of the form. And I think that adding new sounds like jazz and certain types of popular music can create a new interest.

SIMON: Let's listen to another section from "O Emmanuel."


NOTRE DAME CHILDREN'S CHOIR: (Singing) Oh, radiant dawn, shine on those who dwell in darkness (unintelligible) shine on those who dwell in darkness. Splendor of eternal light.

SIMON: And this has - this section has an inflection of gospel and obviously a lot of percussion.

WRIGHT: Well, you know, the text, oh, radiant dawn, shine on those who dwell in darkness is just chock-full of joy and hope. And in the context of this piece, which is really a journey from the beginning of time to the coming of Christ, it's a middle point where we can get some respite from these heavier texts. And I really wanted to present this idea through the medium of the jazz trio with the children's voices.


NOTRE DAME CHILDREN'S CHOIR: (Singing) Oh, radiant dawn, shine on those who dwell in darkness.

SIMON: And this is the Notre Dame Children's Choir, right?

WRIGHT: That's right, yeah. The kids have so much energy. They're so fired up about singing. And to be able to create new sacred music with children is just an incredible experience.

I think one of the best moments of the whole process was during the recording sessions when one of the kids came up to me and he said, you know, J.J., thanks so much for making this music for us. This is just awesome.


NOTRE DAME CHILDREN'S CHOIR: (Singing) Shine on those who dwell in darkness.

SIMON: You're in Rome, I gather, spending an internship with the Sistine Chapel Choir.

WRIGHT: That's right, yes.

SIMON: Mercy - that sounds like an honor.

WRIGHT: (Laughter) It is. It's a - I mostly kind of sit on the sidelines and watch. But I'm learning an incredible amount just being able to watch the process of the rehearsals and also to understand their organizational structure. I think one of the things that they've done really effectively is involve children in the education and production of really high-quality sacred music from the earliest age. And it really creates an incredible opportunity for the future of sacred music because you have a whole generation of people who are really well-trained in this art form.

SIMON: What do you see in the future of sacred music?

WRIGHT: You know, I want to see a full rebirth of the form. It was, you know, traditionally it was where the best music came from. And I think that there's a great opportunity for us now, especially after the Second Vatican Council and the Catholic Church where, you know, the services and the masses are in English now. And so there's an opportunity to relate with people in a new way. And we have a sort of - a body of repertoire that people are coming to know. And just like with Bach's relationship to Martin Luther, for example, we can use this body of fresh material to create really high-quality music, I think, in our churches.

SIMON: Let's hear some more from your album.


NOTRE DAME CHILDREN'S CHOIR: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WRIGHT: You know, there's more of a traditional argument that the proper music for the mass - proper sacred music would be Gregorian chant polyphony. And then on the other side you have people who would lean more towards exclusively new music - more of the praise and worship type thing.

I'm hoping I can strike a middle ground because, you know, one of my passions is to really, really understand and embody this tradition of sacred music so that when I'm creating new music in this tradition it's fully informed by what's come before. I, you know, I really don't want to leave anything behind. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. We have all this incredible music that can teach us - teach us how to be great now.

SIMON: J.J. Wright at the BBC in Rome. His new album is called "O Emmanuel." Thanks so much for being with us.

WRIGHT: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.


NOTRE DAME CHILDREN'S CHOIR: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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