By JACK WALTON Tribune Correspondent
Composer J.J. Wright’s “Vespers for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception” is doubly ambitious.
Stylistically, he’s merging the worlds of classical music and jazz. Moreover, he’s blurring the lines between musical performance and religious ritual.
“I wanted to preserve a liturgical element within the setting of a concert,” Wright says.
The interdisciplinary new work gets its debut Sunday at the Sacred Heart Parish Center Chapel on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.
“Even the day is particular,” Wright says. “It’s on Dec. 7, which is the Eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. All over the world, Christians who pray the Liturgy of the Hours will do what’s called ‘First Vespers.’ It’s a set structure of prayers and readings from Scripture that reflect on that feast.”
Wright has written new settings for the vespers texts and has made a major change in musical forces. In the middle section, a role usually reserved for a basso continuo group will be assigned instead to a jazz trio. Wright plays the piano, with the accompaniment of bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Jon Deitemyer, two of the best players from the current Chicago jazz scene.
They’ll play music somewhat in the fashion of the pieces on Wright’s album, “Inward Looking Outward,” released earlier this year on the Ropeadope label. The album, also in the piano-bass-drums configuration, consists of nine tracks played in a graceful, elegant style. The general tone of the material — mostly Wright originals — is meditative, moody and relentlessly pretty.
In 2011, he made an album with a much more aggressive jazz quartet called Turn Around Norman. In that setting, Wright unleashed a wildly different side to his playing, executing furious, darting runs across the keyboard and hammering out jarring chordal clusters with abandon.
When he’s not playing jazz, he serves as music director for Sacred Heart Parish, the crypt church underneath the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. He’s also the founder and editor of “Music and the Sacred,” the online journal of the Sacred Music at Notre Dame program.
His forces for the “Vespers” work include a vocal quartet made of students from the Sacred Music Program. Other students and local professionals add strings, harpsichord and organ.
Bracketing Wright’s original pieces are brief works from 17th-century masters: Giacomo Carissimi’s “Salve Regina” setting from circa 1670 and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Magnificat” (H.72.)
“Charpentier was Carissimi’s student in Rome,” Wright says. He adds that he included this specific pair to present a teacher-student relationship that is reflected in the project itself, with students and teachers working side by side.
Wright cites Claudio Monteverdi’s thrilling Vespers of 1610 as his primary inspiration in this work. Monteverdi was peerless in both his church pieces and his popular numbers. He let these notions cross-pollinate at times.
“In his time, there were a lot of types of both sacred and secular music happening. There was the old style of Renaissance singing and there was the new style of homophonic singing, where everybody would be in unison,” Wright says. “There was also an element of popular song, which was secular.”