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A jazzy twist on Good Friday

The jazz band playing Nick Weiser’s composition helps Pastor John McNeill give a special Good Friday Service.
By Alexis Forde and Will Uhl

St. Paul’s United Methodist Church hosted an inventive service for Good Friday on Friday March 25. For the second year, the service featured a five-piece band playing a jazz interpretation of The Passion, the story of Christ’s crucifixion, which gave a modern twist to a usually traditional service.

The pianist of the ensemble, Nick Weiser, composed this piece while he was a music director at an Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Once in Ithaca, he continued to rework and refine it. Weiser explained some of the changes he has made to the piece since being in Ithaca.

“It’s written with improvising in mind, so it changes every single time, but I’ve just made modifications to the harmonies and some of the grooves that we use,” Weiser said. “Just the way that we framed the text, to make it better suited to the text.”

Though The Passion has been told many times, the stark and subtle differences between jazz and more traditional performances change the experience just enough to give both listeners and performers a new perspective.

“We have the ability to reframe the way that people are hearing something that they’ve known for years and I enjoy trying to capture the spirit of the text and what’s going on here.” Weiser said.

Weiser’s current interpretation of The Passion was received very well by the attendees of the service. Though he identifies as Catholic, Professor Jonathan Lunine joined his wife specifically to hear the jazz interpretation.

“This is a very beautiful service obviously. The piece, The Passion, which is what you’re referring to, it’s incredibly well-done,” Lunine said. “I heard it last year too, it gets better each year.”

The process of creating new interpretations of this piece isn’t always easy for Weiser. There is a lot that goes into each revision, making sure that it is up to date and able to accompany the service that is being held.

Weiser explained the process he had to go through in his previous position at a different church and how that process still applies to the work he does at St. Paul’s.

“I would take the hymns and arrange them in a jazz style so piano, bass, drums, saxophone, voice, guitar, every week, and there were maybe a dozen to fifteen musical components per service that I would have to re-arrange and modernize and reharmonize so it was a big job,” Weiser said. “But the nice thing about coming here and being at a church that’s open minded is that I’m getting more mileage out of that stuff.”

Though it may seem that this type of service only lends itself to Holy Week, it is actually quite common for St. Paul’s to incorporate the jazz band into their regular services. Having this band perform during Holy Week may even be a little unconventional.

“It’s not specific to Holy Week, or at least it doesn’t have to be. In fact, Holy Week would probably be the last place you’d expect it normally,” Wieser said. “Maybe that’s why it works, it’s sort of cognitively dissonant in a way.”

Being so unique, this type of service brings in a wide variety of attendees – sometimes attracting people who don’t even usually attend the church.

“This year, when we’ve integrated more jazz and integrated the trio into more of what we’re doing, I certainly noticed that we’re getting some new regular people,” Rev. John McNeill said. “Now it’s not obvious to me that they really all have to do with the music, but I think part of it does.”

McNeill offers a reason to why this type of service is so appealing to people who usually don’t attend church services and why it is also so well received by people who regularly attend.

“It’s more fun and it’s more interesting and I think it can be more effective,” he said. “Putting music behind words can really bring out the emotional tenure of what’s being said.”

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