From U.U. Beginnings, Musician Invites New Spiritual Conversation In Jazz Album
June 21, 2021
Writing music comes easy to me – but writing music that really means something is often hard. Before I even decided on the concept of my upcoming album “Hymns Vol. 1,” I was sitting at my piano facing this difficult task. I had a moment where the notes I was writing didn’t carry the depth of meaning I was looking to convey. I needed to answer some fundamental questions: How do I express my values through music? What makes my life experience unique, or valuable? and How will I answer these questions while making a connection with audience members? I found my answer in my childhood growing up in the Unitarian Universalist church, which I always felt had a formative impact on my life. I learned a set of core values, but I was also encouraged to find my own beliefs by studying other religions as a part of a coming-of-age program. Showing up to a marriage equality march on Washington was just as likely to be a UU community event as was a Sunday service.
So in my writing process, I decided to set aside my need to prove myself as a composer of original music, and instead turn to the UU hymnal, “Singing in the Living Tradition”. This is a natural home for a jazz album whose roots always end up in spirituals and gospel music. The hymnal allowed me to explore a variety of hymns, some widely familiar, and some undiscovered gems, and bring my own flavor to them. It allowed me to explore forces I don’t understand (through the song “Guide My Feet”), to follow aspirations of “Immortal Love”, and to express the ongoing struggles in my own path to “Find a Stillness”. Not everything in the hymnal fit the bill, but using it as a source did provide an answer to my questions, added to my own spiritual development, and hopefully provided meaning for listeners.
In the making of this album, I also experienced personal development through Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s assistance as producer. Jamaaladeen, a bassist with a star-studded career (if you don’t know, look him up!), helped me overcome limits I had placed on my musical vision. He made our day in the studio flow with energy and ease, but his real magic came with some special musical parts we added in post-production. He wanted spoken word, organ, and strings in places I hadn’t planned. I was resistant! But knowing I was receiving advice from a wiser, elder musician, I eventually listened. This experience helped me learn to be more trusting and to have faith in collaboration, another element of spiritual growth.
This album was not initially an interfaith dialogue, but in hindsight the band has a diverse set of belief systems. Jamaaladeen is a devout Muslim man, V. Shayne Frederick comes from the Black Christian Church and drummer Matt Jernigan comes from a small Baptist Church. Matt even wrote a beautiful arrangement on the album “Abide With Me”. The bassist, Erik Kramer, grew up with Jewish heritage. To help explore our relationships between music and spirituality, I’ll be publishing recorded conversations with my bandmates and other musicians who also explore these themes. If this is a conversation that interests you, please join us! Follow at paulgiessmusic.bandcamp.com/follow_me to stay updated when a new conversation gets uploaded.
Pre-sale for the album will start on July 23rd, when I’ll release a video of a single “Guide My Feet” an arrangement of an African American Spiritual sung by the illustrious V. Shayne Frederick – recorded in my home Unitarian Universalist church. Please join me for this journey of the next couple of months and share with a note about how music fits into your spiritual life.
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