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Music review: Will Todd

22 March 2019

Tim Boniface listens to Will Todd’s new album

© rob blackman

The composer Will Todd on top of One New Change in London

The composer Will Todd on top of One New Change in London

THE composer Will Todd has certainly made his mark among recent fusions of sacred traditional choral and jazz music, and his wider achievements need little introduction here. His latest CD — an impressive 78 minutes of new music — once more offers a rich blend of dense harmony, some pleasing melodies, and moments of really punchy energy.

The album consists of the eight-part Passion Music, which draws on various texts appropriate for Passiontide; Todd’s new Jazz Missa Brevis; and four stand-alone motets, “God So Loved the World”, “I Am Changed”, “Tantum Ergo”, and “What Sweeter Music”.

Passion Music features the St Martin’s Voices with a jazz ensemble and female vocal soloist. For my ears, Todd’s best decision in this whole project was to give the latter role to Shaneeka (Chin) Simon. She bursts into soundscape halfway through the first movement with a refreshingly soulful tone and an authoritative delivery, rooted in the gospel tradition. Her contribution gets stronger, more commanding, and grittier throughout the movements, and she enables Todd to achieve a level of gospel/jazz authenticity that would have otherwise have been lacking in the vocal delivery of the pieces.

Todd also brings in renowned pianist John Turville, who dances effortlessly around Todd’s changes at opportune times, reminding listeners of the jazz pedigree in this project (listen particularly to Todd’s lovely rewrite of “My Song is Love Unknown” — the main theme worthy of being delivered as an instrumental jazz ballad in its own right). I would have liked a couple of stretched-out piano solos over the rhythm section, but this jazz listener can’t have everything.

Occasional sax and trumpet solos and lines are crisply delivered, and colour the music well. There is an impressive space given to some Cootie Williams-esque blues lines from Graham Flowers’s trumpet as the music evocatively recounts Christ’s dying words and the sky turning black. Yes, Passion Music features some very good writing indeed.

One reservation, though: as far as the more up-tempo sections go (e.g. “I Give You A New Commandment” and “Seven Last Words”), even with the exceptional Simon and Turville, the St Martin’s Voices’ noticeably “classical” delivery jars a little and detracts from the overall feel. This is not a broader quality problem at all — they are an excellent ensemble — but I am reminded of a conversation with a friend who recalled watching the masterful Duke Ellington, in rehearsal for one of his sacred concerts, struggling to get a top London choir to really swing. In the slower numbers, this slight disjunction is barely present — the Voices sing with pleasing warmth and tenderness — but when the tempo and energy increase, they seem to lean forward rather than back on the beat, and their clearly and perfectly enunciated consonants are somewhat incongruous with the jazz feel for which Todd is clearly aiming.

In the four motets, however, the St Martin’s ensemble show their strength. Here, where they are no longer required to really “fuse” with jazz, they offer four top-notch performances of Todd’s evocative settings, especially of “God So Loved the World”. I will be listening to these again, and would be delighted to hear these excellent compositions sung in a service of worship.

Todd has written the Jazz Missa Brevis for both concert and liturgical use. That he describes using his own improvisations around the text as a compositional springboard is a nice touch, and helps us to understand that he doesn’t simply try to squeeze jazz in here and there, but seeks always to chime authentically with the tradition.

Designed to be singable for a wider range of choirs, the Missa Brevis is a little less sophisticated than Passion Music, but still impressive, even though the melodies perhaps fall too often into an over-reliance on journeys up and down the blues scale. The ensemble horn lines in this work are good, being perhaps the strongest compositional element. And, as always, Todd gives us nicely voiced, rich chords that choirs and congregations will enjoy. Like Mass In Blue, his Mass will establish itself as a frequently used composition

There is a great deal to admire in this release from an important and gifted British choral composer. I will return to it particularly for Chin Simon and John Turville, and for the four excellent motets.

“Will Todd: Passion Music, Jazz Missa Brevis” (IGCD563) is released by Signum Records. signumrecords.com

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