Album Review: The James Taylor Quartet’s Rochester Mass

james taylor quartetHere’s a real curveball that gives a new meaning to the word ‘fusion’. The James Taylor Quartet have always been known for their reliable brand of Brit jazz/funk but now they’ve come up with one of the most surprising and impressive releases of the year.

Jazz has been fused with all kinds of music styles but you probably wouldn’t have bet on it getting a choral makeover. Written entirely by Taylor partly in tribute to his late father, The Rochester Mass pits his Fender Rhodes-based classic jazz/funk sound against the 40-strong Rochester Cathedral Choir and comes up with something entirely original.

We are thrust unceremoniously into this new soundworld with opener ‘Sanctus Part One’ which combines light funk in 7/8 and ethereal vocal flavours. ‘Sanctus Part Two’ adds a hefty dose of bass pipe organ to the mix while ‘Agnus Dei Part One’ foregrounds some very unexpected chord changes. The boogalooing second part sounds a bit like Curtis Mayfield experimenting with choral music. The beguiling, treacherous melody of ‘Benedictus’ is reminiscent of Eberhard Weber’s best 1970s work.

The Rochester Mass is the kind of thing you might have expected 20 years ago from Keith Jarrett, Bill Bruford or Michael Garrick, but it’s a great surprise coming from such a stalwart of the jazz/funk scene. Recorded in just six hours at Angel Studios in North London, it’s also an amazing production job by Taylor – the choir sounds like it is coming to you from the stage of Westminster Abbey. Also, in a world of over-long CDs, the album is pleasingly brief at just over 33 minutes, but it still feels like a complete piece of music.

One hopes that the Mercury Prize voting panel are listening; The Rochester Suite is adventurous, original, always listenable and surely one of the albums of the year.

The Rochester Mass is out now on Cherry Red.

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5 comments

  1. Well, I have heard the track on Jazz on 3 last Saturday and I’ve got to say that it felt like eating a lobster pizza. In short, 2 good things independently were wasted once put together. I didn’t think the choir, for as good as it may be brought anything to complement the fine work of the JTQ and it’s wonderful flute solos. I was grimacing at the superimposition of a busy drums groove with the choir’s long lines. They called it a mass, I call it a mass-acre! Now let me explain my acrimony…

    I recently got the immense pleasure of accompanying a church choir with a Jazz trio for a piece that was composed with great care and who ticked all the “Jazz” boxes as well as the those relating to choir music, mass and reflection. The work was “A little jazz mass” by Bob Chilcott. It was refined, it was clever and powerful. None of these qualities I found in the JTQ offering.

    Rolling back the years, several good Jazz recording have been made to encompass both religious voices and messages – Duke’s “Black Brown and Beige” suite, Donald Byrd’s “A new perspective” and the sadly too obscure “Prayer ceremony in Jazz” by Jonathan Klein featuring no less that Herbie, Ron Carter and Thad Jones (link here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLUSDFsNKsk). Once again, upon what I’ve heard of the reviewed album, nothing comes close to match the intensity and subtlety provided by the 3 recordings I have mentioned.

    rant off!

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  2. Fair enough, JH, each to his own. I would urge you to check out the rest of the album though, there are some big developments from that first piece. Also I don’t really think of the JTQ part of the album as ‘jazz’ at all, it’s defiantly jazz/funk. I think that’s what resonated for me the most – neither the quartet nor the choir have watered down their sounds. It’s a straight mash-up of jazz/funk and devotional singing! Refreshingly different.

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  3. Hi
    James here, I wrote the massacre, thanks for your kind words. It took me 4 months. And I took great care,
    if it doesn’t tick all the jazz boxes I’m probably not that concerned
    But as I say, thanks. Good luck with the Chilcott.

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  4. Heard Sanctus part 1 on 6Music and was captivated immediately. Still can’t get enough of that track – funky, fantastic flute and flugelhorn solos, really interesting choral harmonies. It still leaves me open-mouthed.

    Got a signed copy of the CD direct from the label’s website. Have to admit the rest of the mass isn’t quite as captivating, but still an amazing listen. It’s definitely a fusion rather than what I would call a ‘salad’ – the band informs the choral element and the choir informs the band, and the result is something quite different.

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    1. Hi Adam, thanks for dropping by and pleased you enjoy it too. I don’t think I’ve really heard anything quite like it, though as you say some pieces work better than others. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything this ‘deep’ from the JTQ! Did you get to see them play the album live at Ronnie’s last week?

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