Will Scruggs, tenor and soprano saxophone
Brian Hogans, piano
Dan Baraszu, guitar
Tommy Sauter, bass
Marlon Patton, drums
Kinah Boto Ayah, percussion
with Joe Gransden, trumpet on “Go Down Moses”
Joe Gransden, trumpet
Ryan Whitehead, clarinet
Brian Hogans, alto sax
Norm Ficke, tenor sax
Wes Funderburk, trombone
Travis Cottle, trombone
Lee Watts, bass trombone
Will Scruggs, baritone sax
Recorded April 2-4, 2012, by Marlon Patton, Tucker, GA
Mixed and mastered by Tim Delaney at Electron Gardens
Production assistance and management by Cathy Geier
Original art and cover design by Ana Maria Paramo
Copyright 2012 Willis I Music
My vision for this recording was to create a musical journey through the deeper themes of the Christmas narrative. Using ancient canticles, hymns, and folk melodies, I chose eleven pieces to formulate a layered chronology that illustrates the profound, spiritual mystery of the radical biblical story of the birth of Christ. I knew I could not take on an artistic challenge of this magnitude alone, so I recruited several collaborators to help me fulfill my vision.
To anchor the rhythm section I started with my friend Marlon Patton, an incredibly versatile and musical drummer who has been involved in all of my creative projects over the last five years. Next I called bassist Tommy Sauter, a hard-swinging player with a big sound and deep jazz roots who I had been looking for a chance to reconnect with after our steady trio gig ended in 2009. Multi-instrumentalist and Jazz Fellowship veteran Brian Hogans agreed to cover the piano while on break from his busy touring schedule (as an alto sax player), and to add texture and a second melodic voice I called on my friend Dan Baraszu, an extremely tasteful and precise guitarist with a beautiful, natural sound. It was Marlon’s suggestion to add Kinah Boto Ayah on percussion. Although I had never worked with Kinah before, I knew his handmade “Ayah Drums” would add depth to the ensemble sound, and his creative contributions had a major impact on the project. Last but not least my father, Perry Scruggs, was my theological advisor and helped me to formulate and organize the program.
The music we created was the result of a truly collaborative effort, arranged with major creative contributions by every band member. Only a few tunes were spearheaded by an individual arranger, and even those benefited greatly from group experimentation and review. This has been the most meaningful and fulfilling musical project of my career thus far, and it is a blessing to be able to share this spiritual journey with all those who play or hear this music. Thank you for listening.
Because so many collections of Christmas music offer only religious sentimentality or holiday pop, it’s intriguing to find one challenging listeners to explore both spiritual depth and jazz complexity. Will Scruggs and his Jazz Fellowship have managed to do just that in Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey.
At the conclusion of the nativity saga in the Gospel of Luke, the Song of Simeon portrays the Christmas event as “A light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32). This proclamation forms the two halves of our program. Part I: The Glory, is a celebration of the fulfillment of the promise to God’s people. Part II: The Light, offers a gift of new light to the world. These themes escort us through the Jazz Fellowship’s renderings of both familiar and obscure traditional musical selections.
The first set of songs, “The Glory of God’s People,” begins by defining the birth event as God’s way to “ransom captive Israel” in the hauntingly familiar “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a name which means “God with us.” The birth narrative then begins in earnest as a young woman is called to be the instrument of the redemption of God’s people, illustrated in a century old Basque setting of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-48). The Magnificat, Mary’s acceptance speech, shines in a contemporary version of the classic Song of Mary. This ancient biblical psalm portends the one who will both fulfill God’s purpose for the chosen people of history and shape the ethic of the new Israel (Luke 1:46-55).
The first people to learn of the birth of the savior were “shepherds abiding in the fields” (Luke 2:8), to bring to light the prophetic words of the young mother’s song, as shepherds were considered the bottom rung of the social ladder. The familiar 18th century London carol, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” may at first blush not seem so, but it reflects the words of the angel to these humble servants: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” (Luke 2:14)
The project reaches its keystone in the words of the old templar Simeon who had been waiting his whole life to see the salvation of his people in the birth of a savior: “A light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people” (Luke 2: 32). This Song of Simeon, interpreted by the Jazz Fellowship from a contemporary setting by Ronald Arnatt, leads into a rather radical culmination of the Glory of God’s people, returning to the root theme of the release of Israel. Coming full circle, Simeon’s words fulfill those of his Hebrew ancestors, by hearkening back to the Exodus lament via the African-American Spiritual, “Go Down Moses.”
To set the stage for Part II, the revelation of the birth of Christ as a “Light to the Nations,” the Jazz Fellowship reaches back into the 15th century with “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming.” This beautiful German melody proclaims the theme: “Dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.” Carrying over from the biblical narrative, the Light must first be spread into a darkened world, by its revelation to and through the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). Naturally, the light shines forth as the star described in the 19th century standard “We Three Kings.”
Three varied pieces round out the “Light to the World” set. A little-known Canadian Christmas song, “The Huron Carol,” depicts the Christmas narrative in a Native American setting using a 16th century French folk melody. This Jesus, born in an abandoned lodge and wrapped in rabbit skins, is visited by chiefs of neighboring tribes, incarnating an international, cross-cultural Christ. The ancient “Ideo Gloria” uses a Latin refrain to proclaim a universal savior whose “doom” will bring our “mirth.” The set and then the project close with the ubiquitous “Joy to the World,” which not only celebrates a cosmic Christ, but ushers in new life with a new ethic. The newborn savior “rules the earth with truth and grace,” calling all nations to “the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”
Mary’s song of raising up the lowly shines as the new way her earthly child fulfills the prophecy of old Simeon’s Light to the Nations and the Glory of God’s people. The cost the child will pay for the gifts he brings will be high, and the journey here begun in him for us will never be finished. But perhaps, just as they have done here with Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey, The Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship may someday tackle a second project to accompany the rest of the story.
The Rev. C. Perry Scruggs, Jr.