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Music review: The Infant: A jazz suite for Christmas

06 December 2019

Roderic Dunnett hears nativity suite for quartet


ANOTHER engaging new jazz disc, The Infant: A jazz suite for Christmas, has appeared from the Revd Dr Tim Boniface, assistant curate of St Nicholas’s, Chislehurst, in Kent.

Boniface, a saxophonist, shows great artistry and sensitivity; and the same can be said for the trio who play with him: Phil Merriman (piano), Ed Babar (bass), and Jon Ormston (drums). This quartet proves itself an instrumental ensemble of skill and subtlety.

Boniface effectively fronts each item, and provides much of the colouring. The backing, for that is what it is, is more recessive; indeed, the writing for them, one might hazard, is at times less perceptive or inventive — certainly in a more traditional jazz vein — than that for the solo instrument.

St Nicholas’s seeks to be “an inclusive church which welcomes and serves all people; which is scripturally faithful [and] seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh”. This no doubt explains the idea behind the present recording.

Its nine movements relate to the Bible stories of Advent and Christmas. Thus we find sections on “Gabriel”: Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah. Then we progress to Bethlehem: “The Infant”; the angels, the shepherds, and Simeon; and lastly, “Good News”, which, as readers may imagine, brims over with zest, in a joyous syncopated manner. A Cleo Laine-like mezzo soprano, Polly Gibbons, lends this section the coloratura that, with trumpet or sax, has been so often a feature of jazz performance.

If I have a reservation, it is perhaps that these movements, mostly in a classic traditional vein, aspire to evoke in the listener a sense of the Gospel narrative. For me, they did not do so, at least not in the precise way in which, say, a Bach or Handel aria evokes the specific mood of its subject-matter. The spirited finale came nearest.

The faster movements were those that I found most attractive. The opening is in effect a Blues for Gabriel and Mary. Elizabeth’s music, while conceived with an appealing lightness in the scoring, failed to stir me: it was pleasant, but not exciting. With Zechariah, things hotted up.

I can easily recommend the disc to jazz-lovers who have a commitment to the Christian faith. The Shepherds’ movement is a memorable one: Boniface’s score for these humble folk has a real pastoral feel — no less than, say, plenty of Dvorák, or Puccini’s shepherd boy prefacing the final act of Tosca. The more original Boniface’s writing is, the more effective the music becomes.

This work expresses the joy and passion of his faith, and a good cheer that he seeks to pass on to others in a new form. It is a wonderful idea, and these forthright performances overcame my reservations. See what effect they have on you.

Available at www.timboniface.co.uk/shop

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