TIM BONIFACE, Assistant Curate of St Nicholas’s, Chislehurst, in Kent, is a jazz musician and a talented saxophonist. He has been drawn, like Haydn, to compose a musical reflection on the last sayings of Christ. His idea is that the eight movements of his jazz suite, first performed in Cambridge last Holy Week and now issued on CD (TB007WH) in partnership with the theological college Westcott House, will draw the listener to reflect on the words of Jesus and on their more universal implications for us today.
The sequence, spanning John 18 and 19, embraces Christ’s words to those sent to arrest him at Gethsemane (”Whom seek ye?”), including his rebuke to Peter; before Annas (“I have spoken openly for all the world to hear. . .”); and before Pilate (“My kingdom is not of this world”). The last forms a moving centrepiece.
A half-minute silence denotes Christ’s non-reply to the Procurator’s “What is truth?” and later, after the scourging, to “Where do you come from?” “You would have no power over me” evokes a sudden outburst, and the ensuing bars are more assertive and buoyant. The last four sections are words from the cross (from John 19.26-30).
There is a kind of counterpoint between the musical movements and the underlying implications that Boniface seeks to draw out: latent themes and moral implications that are universal. Several derive from Michael Sadgrove’s book Eight Words of Jesus in the Passion according to St John (SPCK, 2007).
The music for the arrest is a Blues, relaxed, indeed almost breezy, in which the saxophone, double bass, drums, and piano (Ed Babar, Jon Ormston, Phil Merriman) work in perfect harness together. As in several movements, the other instruments unfold a recurring, then artfully adapting ostinato, while the saxophone freely improvises overhead.
The second is an adagio, slowly trudging, with the three other instruments to the fore: the effect is mesmerising and attractive, in contrast to Peter’s violence. The scherzo that follows, a “free, dancing melody”, reflects the “weaving” of Christ’s words from those communities in which he moved throughout history to our day.
Easily the most alluring section is the fourth, in effect an exquisite “hymn of peace”: the music unfolds like a way reminiscent of a 16- or 32-bar passage of Bach (something that jazz does well), with the idea that it evokes “Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God, which Christians are called to embody and hope for. The song of peace cannot be silenced; it’s a slow, sometimes mournful, but always hopeful song that exposes the fragility of human kingdoms built on violence and greed. This hymn looks beyond the brokenness and pain we see around us, to a kingdom of peace and wholeness.”
After the initial outburst, the fifth word yields a lively and “swung” movement. The inference is that Jesus calls on us “to name accurately where power belongs and to confront its abuse”. The music, we are told, “presents these interweaving themes of power, abuse, and betrayal through its fast-paced motif and the improvisations that follow”.
Possibly the longest movement, lasting some eight minutes, is the wonderfully intimate and tender, almost nostalgic, passage in which Christ says to Mary: “Woman, here is your son.” The music is lulling, with some enchanting Blues-like material for the other instruments, keyboard leading, and the saxophone only folded over them midway. “This is a song of sadness, and of gratitude for love,” the notes comment. “This utterly desperate scene is still a place of gift — towards real, open, loving human relationships.”
From “I am thirsty”, another contemplative passage led in by Merriman’s haunting piano and Ormston’s expressive drums (a steadily moving “groove”), the long ensuing melody lines reflect desire and longing: it is suggested that Jesus’s thirst is analogous to the thirsts of people everywhere: “a desire that stretches across our every day: a desire met, somehow, in Jesus’ own desires”.
The tragic “It is finished” again elicits an outburst, a brief climax; the three words clearly record that the long hours of execution have reached their agonising end; but more positively, they also “declare that somehow this is not a failure, but, something accomplished” (“vollbracht” in Bach). Alluding back to the hymn, the music points us, we are told, “In a gentle, fragile way, to the promise that Jesus’ death is to be followed by a new beginning for all of us, in the risen future of the crucified one.” The gorgeous central hymn (akin to a pleading negro spiritual) is then briefly and movingly reprised to form a warm, promising, and optimistic conclusion.
Here is a meeting of four multitalented instrumentalists and a new work moving to explore, even analyse, the final hours of Christ. Not all the theological suggestions are instantly intelligible, and different listeners will respond differently to the way the words are suggested, aped, or expressed in individual movements. But haunting it is. Those with a penchant for jazz, as well as others, may find the genre of four expressive and lucidly contrasting instruments, the rich seam of shared improvisation, and periodically the dexterity of the saxophone alone both inspired and reassuring.
The Eight Words is available for £10 plus £1.80 p&p from the composer at www.timboniface.co.uk.