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‘Misa’ works, but in mysterious ways

Special to The Times

Encountering a full symphony orchestra, choir, jazz ensemble and vocalist on stage at the same time is not exactly what one expects from a run-of-the-mill jazz concert. But, then, Saturday’s program at Disney Concert Hall can hardly be described as run-of-the-mill.

The gathering of such an impressive array of forces -- the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Paul Smith Singers, the Northridge Singers of Cal State Northridge and Diane Reeves and her band, for starters -- was assembled for the world premiere performance of composer Gutierrez del Barrio’s jazz Mass, “Misa Justa.”

The lineup also included, as guest artists, pianist Billy Childs, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, flutist Hubert Laws and saxophonist-oboist Paul McCandless. The size of the enterprise was impressive, but neither liturgical jazz nor symphonic jazz is particularly new. Composer Ed Summerlin’s pioneering, jazz-infused “Musical Setting for an Order of Morning Prayer” in the late ‘50s was followed by dozens of jazz-related religious works. Symphonic jazz reaches back to the dawn of the genre, peaking in the Third Stream blendings in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

In both cases, the fundamental question is whether the combination of seemingly disparate elements works as good music without sacrificing the essential qualities of jazz, the orchestra and the spiritual focus of the texts.

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From that perspective, Del Barrio’s work might best be described as a Mass with jazz rather than a jazz Mass. The composition was structured around five segments of the Mass -- the Kyrie Eleison, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

These traditional passages were paralleled with interstitial poetic passages written by Patsy Moore and sung by Reeves. Via lines such as “Spirit, wilt Thou now harken unto Thy firstborn daughter?,” the segments honored the memories of the biblical Mary, Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Ruth, Naomi and Mary Magdalene.

Individually, each aspect of the work had appealing qualities. Choral segments -- performed superbly by the combined choirs -- were composed with a harmonic richness embracing characteristics of the Renaissance past and the dissonant present.

Orchestral passages, especially a well-crafted fugal segment, flowed with multicolored, emotionally layered ease. And both Reeves’ singing and the jazz soloing (especially Childs’ piano playing) stood well on their own.

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But in this musical panorama, it was the trees that were more well-defined than the forest. One section of the work followed another, each attractive in its own right, but with the contributory elements defined within their own musical identities, largely due to the absence of the sort of sweeping thematic content that might have brought them together.


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