By Michael Turton
When people leave home to go to church, great jazz may not be uppermost in their minds – unless they happen to be attending Jazz Vespers at the First Presbyterian Church in Cold Spring. Jazz is jazz. “Vespers” refers to service of evening prayers. Local musician Tom McCoy organizes the musical performance while Reverend Leslie Mott provides the spiritual message at a service that is at once entertaining, relaxing and thought provoking.
Jazz Vespers was established ten years ago, before Mott came to the church at 10 Academy Street and she has kept the non-denominational tradition alive for a very practical reason. “It’s a way to reach people who probably wouldn’t normally come to church on Sunday” she said. While the music is excellent, Mott stressed that Vespers is also very much a spiritual event. “This isn’t a jazz concert interrupted by a sermon. But music does help people relax – and I think that makes them more receptive to a spiritual message.”
“Most people have a longing to experience something greater than themselves – a longing, on some level, for the divine. We just help them tune in to that – pun intended,” Mott said. McCoy has been Jazz Vespers’ musical director from the beginning. “I continue because it’s great to play jazz in Cold Spring “¦with really great players and singers.” But he says it’s jazz with a difference. “It’s very different than a jazz concert where everything focuses on the musicians and the music. Here it’s something beyond that – Vespers always serves some sort of theme. It’s a way for me to combine my deep interest in music with something spiritual.”
McCoy and Mott collaborate on each Vespers service, ensuring the musical and spiritual themes are in sync. The jazz is eclectic – from West Coast to Swing to Bebop and running the gamut from John Lennon’s music put to jazz to the great John Coltrane. Last Saturday’s service was themed around transformation – both human as well the landscape’s shift into spring. The music blended smoothly with that theme with such tunes as Though April Showers, Spring Will be a Little Late this Year, and Gentle Rain. But as always the spiritual message was there as well – and the service ended with a rousing take on Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley.
Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, a landmark event of Lent. Lent has its roots in the Old English word Lencten meaning “to lengthen” and parallels the lengthening of the days and the transformation of the landscape from winter to spring. Throughout Lent, Mott worked with the congregation at Jazz Vespers on transformative skills for daily life – such as humility, paying attention, silence, forgiveness and joy. “It’s easy to say we should be transformed, that’s a no-brainer,” Mott said. “Doing it is the hard part.” She suggested that even small changes in daily routines can pay dividends. “Walk somewhere using a different route. Drive to work a different way. Answer the phone with your non-dominant hand. The idea is to break a habit – any habit – as a signal that you are willing to transform your life.” She said that the Dalai Lama writes about the practice of inner transformation as being the key aspect of world transformation.
Last Saturday featured some of the great musical talent that McCoy referred to and it was clear from their comments that the musicians don’t view Jazz Vespers as just another gig. For Rob Scheps, who plays sax and flute, it’s about coming home. “I run around all over the world and playing here gives me”¦roots. ”
Bass player MaLew Scott said that playing at Vespers is more than just a good musical experience. It’s personal. “You leave here with a good feeling – a very good feeling.”
For drummer Mike LaRocco Vespers is about community. “It gives me a chance to play with world-class musicians – but I’m also a member of this church and Vespers gives me a chance to give back to the community.”
Mark Sherman not only plays the vibes – he feels them at Vespers. “There are great moments that happen here. And you know them when they happen” he said.
Mott began Saturday’s service with a comment about the very unpleasant weather outside and mentioned the tune, Though April Showers. That also happened to be the first piece that McCoy and company played – much to Mott’s surprise. She swore it was a coincidence. An appreciative audience of more than 40 listened attentively – both to the music and to Mott’s spiritual message.
The last Jazz Vespers of the season will be held on Saturday, May 21 at 5:30 pm at the First Presbyterian Church of Philipstown at 10 Academy Street in Cold Spring. They return on the third Saturday of September.
Photos by M. Turton (except as noted)