Music that accompanies some of us on the walk of faith… including a new list by Jenny Moore-Koslowsky
One of the favourites on the old site was our Top Ten Music lists, in which various musicians connected to our community offered their own version of what they considered essential listening for the life of faith. Those lists were originally inspired by a little section in the introduction to Rodney Clapp’s book Border Crossings, in which he invites the reader to “enrich your music collection with at least two albums from among the following, and use them as the soundtracks of your life as you read this book.” He then goes on to offer this really interesting list of stuff, divided more or less equally between jazz and country. What Clapp doesn’t do is to provide any annotation as to why these particular albums, though in the course of the book itself at least some of the albums are discussed. Well, we’re interested in the “whys,” and so the following lists include a fair bit of detail as to why these folks think these albums are worth your attention. Oh, and though I’m not a musician, I have offered up the first list in the section… meaning that whether or not you are a musician you too can give this a whirl.
Jamie Howison’s revised 2008 version of the Top 10 albums for the soundtrack of life and faith, in no particular order:
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Impulse! 1965) – In the original liner notes to this classic jazz album, Coltrane wrote, “I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His omnipotence, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that no matter what… it is with God. He is gracious and merciful. His way is in love, through which we all are… it is truly – a love supreme.” The four tracks make up an album-length instrumental suite, responding in praise to God’s love and grace.
Excerpt | John Coltrane, A Love Supreme |
Part 1: Acknowledgment
Find the album here on iTunes
John Coltrane, Meditations (Impulse! 1966) – This one is certainly not nearly as accessible as A Love Supreme, but for me it is well worth the work. And you do have to work at this album, particularly on the opening free jazz piece “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” which clocks in at just under 13 minutes of explosive group improvisation. What Coltrane manages to say about the wildness and sheer power of God (in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “our God is a consuming fire”) in that opening track is quite startling. While the rest of the album is not exactly restful, it does form a sustained musical meditation on a life lived in service of this God.
Excerpt | John Coltrane, Meditations |
The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost
Find the album here on iTunes
Oliver Schroer, Camino (Big Dog, 2006) – Over the course of two months in 2004, violinist Schroer walked a thousand kilometers of the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route across the north of Spain. Accompanied by his wife and two friends, Schroer packed along his violin and portable recording equipment, and all along the way recorded original music and improvisations in churches, along roadways, and at pilgrim hostels. The result is a unique road album to be attended to and prayed with.
Excerpt | Oliver Schroer, Camino | Field of Stars
Find the album here on iTunes
Terence Blanchard, A Tale of God’s Will (Blue Note, 2007) – Subtitled “a requiem for Katrina,” this disc by trumpeter Blanchard consists of music from, and inspired by, Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke.” Really, though, it is less a film soundtrack and more a soundtrack for the city of New Orleans in the midst of its pain and crisis. I listened to it from beginning to end as I drove out to do a burial about an hour south of our city, and by the time I arrived at the cemetery I was better equipped to offer the burial prayers than I think I’d ever been in my whole ministry.
Excerpt | Terence Blanchard, Tale of God’s Will | Funeral Dirge
Find the album here on iTunes
Bob Bennett, Songs from Bright Avenue (Urgent Records, 1991; currently available through Signpost) – An album written in a large part in response to the collapse of a marriage, Bright Avenue is by turns achingly beautiful and almost unbearably honest. It also happens to be quite profoundly hopeful and resiliently grace-filled.
Excerpt | Bob Bennett, Songs from Bright Avenue |
I’m still alive tonight
Find the album here at Signpost Music
Lou Reed, Magic and Loss (Sire Records, 1992) – At the end of the lyric booklet, Reed writes, “Between two Aprils I lost two friends. Between two Aprils magic and Loss.” An iconoclastic rock legend finds himself facing questions of life and death, suffering and pain, and ends up saying some things to which the community of faith would do well to attend. Not pretty, mind you.
Excerpt | Lou Reed, Magic and Loss | Magic and Loss
Find the album here on iTunes
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) – So you think you might want to get into jazz music, but don’t know where to start. Start here. The album’s drummer Jimmy Cobb commented that it “must have been made in heaven,” and it is not hard to see why this might be the case. Peaceful, beautiful, haunting and authentic.
Excerpt | Miles Davis, Kind of Blue | Blue in Green
Find the album here on iTunes
Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert (ECM, 1975) – Solo improvisational piano, recorded live in concert in Koln, Germany, this album is all about openness to the leading of the creative (Holy) spirit. Also worth mentioning is a 28 minute piece entitled “Desert Sun,” from Jarret’s 6-disc Live at the Blue Note, performed with his trio. As an extended, sometimes ecstatic meditation, this one works brilliantly.
Excerpt | Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert | Just for a change
Find the album here on iTunes
Bruce Cockburn, Humans (True North, 1980), Nothing But a Burning Light (True North, 1991), The Charity of Night (True North, 1996) – Sitting over beer with the writer/theologian Brian Walsh a few years back, discussing the relative merits of Cockburn’s many great albums, I was surprised to find that Brian was fairly indifferent to both Humans and Nothing But a Burning Light, which have long been my two favourites. We did agree, however, that The Charity of Night ranks as utterly indispensable, and so here I have included it in a three-way tie for a position on the list of life-soundtracks.
Excerpt | Bruce Cockburn, Humans | Strange Waters
Find the album here on iTunes
Steve Bell, Devotion (Signpost, release date pending) – How can I possibly include an album not yet finished, much less released? Well, because I’ve heard early “draft” versions of about half the songs that will appear on this disc, and they happen to be that good. About two-thirds of the tunes on this one are by Gord Johnson, and many are songs that were written and/or developed in the context of our worshipping community, and among them are many of the ones Gord constantly gets asked if he has recordings of. He does now!
Singer/Songwriter Jenny Moore-Koslowsky’s Top Ten CDs:
this list was made between 8.45 and 10.21 on 7 july 2008 and i can’t promise it will be relevant on any other day. however, it is a list and i like reading other people’s lists and i definitely like writing them so welcome to some music that has moved me, written in alphabetical order to prevent any hierarchy, except for a letter-based one, which, if your last name starts with y or z and you were always last in school, you know is still not fair, but at least it’s consistent.
ane brun – live in scandanavia (2007) – this is everything music for me. at christmas, it’s christmas music, at breakfast, it’s wakeup music, at 3 am, it’s paper-writing music. it’s good and haunting and full of just enough mystery for me.
ani difranco – living in clip disc 1 and 2 (1997) – this was the album that made me realize that music has a generous temper: it can rage and love at the same time. it may be nostalgia for a certain, formative, guitar playing time in my life but I still get goosebumps at one point in most tunes, and am inspired by difranco’s relentlessness musicianship and poetry.
bjork – volta (2007) – bjork is always about 15 years ahead of the rest of us on some strange and wonderful boom-boxing planet, screaming and yelling but making it sound like an epic opera. AND her use of antony hegarty is brilliant. their voices together break my heart.
the choir monks of montserra abbey – gregorian chant (1973,1981) – chanting is enchanting
jose gonzales – veneer (2003) – i think this album was really influential in me developing a voice for writing at st ben’s. his deliberate, persistent rhythms and repetitive melodies settle somewhere in the bottom of my gut.
kaki king – legs to make us longer (2004) OR until we felt red (2006) – she makes a guitar sound like the way life feels.
lauryn hill – mtv unplugged (2001) – most people thought this album was a complete bust and that lauryn hill has officially fallen off the edge. i disagree. the first time i listened to this double disc, i found myself in complete darkness, lying on my back on the floor, having listened from beginning to end without moving. i suddenly felt that my life was incredibly convoluted and small, and decided to start thinking more and buying less.
sufjan stevens – Illinois OR seven swans (2004) – i pick these albums because it was such a relief to hear someone write like sufjan stevens. his narratives, caricatures, compositions and interpretations are brave and hopeful but still realistic.
neko case – fox confessor brings the flood (2006) – a timeless voice singing things like “deep red bells.” i think you just have to listen to this one.
caedmon’s call – share the well – wow, here’s an old one but I just remembered that this is a list of albums that have been influential in a faith-ish kind of way so, here goes. share the well caught me at a time when I was really disillusioned with the western church and our idea of ‘tragedy’ and ‘outreach,’ both of which I thought we knew little of compared to many other communities and nations. caedmon’s call wrote and recorded this album while on travelling in Ecuador and India, and they collaborated with musicians from each place in order to record and translate their experiences. finally, an album that was energized, and responsive. I probably still know every word from this record, but the whole album comes together and earns its place on the list in the last track (which we’ve done at st. ben’s before), dalit hymn.
extras for good measure and more listening pleasure:
jenny lewis – rabbit fur coat (2005) – one of my best ‘new’ female songwriter experiences because we share the same first name and because she’s a smart one. i find her integration and twists of gospel song structures and themes hilarious and dark at the same time (which is usually the best kind). i can relate to her sad sarcasm and inappropriate interpretations of life.
chopin – from the pianist soundtrack – is this very philistine of me to choose chopin, who is such a classical music pop star, and on top of THAT choose film music? apologies. in spite of this, I have remembered my heart and head and things that are unspeakably powerful when listening.
steve bell – solace (2007) – god knows i need it most of the time.
Singer/Songwriter Jaylene Johnson’s Top Ten CDs:
This is a difficult task because my list continues to evolve. I’ve chosen CDs that I listen to without skipping any tracks. I’ve also chosen discs that “met” me at stages of my life when I needed their encouragement and inspiration. It is, to me, a sad fact that I am SURPRISED by the number of records on this list by Christian artists (ie: those who’ve come out of the Contemporary Christian market). I haven’t had an easy time finding those generally speaking. Anyway… in no particular order:
U2, Rattle and Hum – I love The Joshua Tree, but I love the live versions even more. There is an energy that comes through this recording. Listening to it has been a worshipful experience for me on many occasions, especially when I used to tour a lot and had hours in the car by myself.
Nichole Nordeman, This Mystery – Here is an intelligent songwriter in the Contemporary Christian Music world. Several years ago I had hit something of a personal/spiritual crisis and decided to take a road trip West for a few weeks to figure some things out. I “happened” upon this disc at a strip mall somewhere in Saskatchewan while looking for some camping contraption. I then wept through the first several listens. She was expressing the things I needed to but couldn’t. This record is more about questions than answers, and it was the perfect soundtrack for that trip. I don’t listen to it much anymore, but I had to include it because of what it meant to me at the time. I think I sent Nichole some crazed fan mail over it too…notice that we are on a first name basis…lol!
Jars of Clay, Who We Are Instead – This is another collection of songs that sits comfortably in grey versus black and whites…a rarity in Contemporary Christian Music it seems. I love the sonic pallet of this record, and the lyrics are great. Incidentally, my favorite track was playing when I hit a semi-truck. Their other recordings are hit and miss for me, but this one is special to me.
Damien Rice, O – I found this CD before I even knew that he was popular. (I am not a “with it” person, spending far too much time bouncing around in my head to be aware of what’s cool at any given moment). I listened to it at least thirty times during one road trip. It was what helped me truly understand that the raw and imperfect “takes” when recording may in fact be the perfect takes. It’s a strangely mastered CD, with some tracks flowing one into the other as though it was recorded live off the floor. The track Eskimo sent me into an elated state…It contains the best surprise. Though many songs have moved me over the years, the only other song to cause the same reaction of spontaneous exuberance was “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Bjork.
Switchfoot, Beautiful Letdown – Wow. Another Contemporary Christian LP. Hmmm. Well, there are a few good ones. This one is great. The songs are well crafted and I love what they say. As a songwriter, I have a lot of respect for Jon Foreman. I’m not sure if he still does, but at one time he was writing a song a day, just to keep ideas flowing and perfect his craft. For every great track on this record, he probably wrote a dozen or so “ok” songs…In my opinion, they made terrific choices with this LP for a cohesive record, and I’m hard pressed to find any gratuitous or trite or over-said in the lyrics. Cool.
The Harlots, Crawl Spaces – Anyone who knows me will suspect a bias here, but I liked the man before I ever heard his music, and would have loved the music regardless. There is something in the delivery of these songs that I identify with emotionally. It’s as though all of the angst in them sympathizes with my own angst. For me, it’s Rock Music at its most driving and gorgeous. And the lyrics are quirky, creative and obscure. I dig.
Patty Griffin, Impossible Dream – This is a stunningly beautiful record. Many of the tracks move me to tears. There’s a song called “Useless Desires” which I’m sure speaks about her sticking it out in Nashville while a lot of people moved on. Again, there’s an emotional identification for me with where I’m at in life. It was my first introduction to Patty’s work, and thus far my favorite. I’m a sucker for layered sounds and lyrics that put me somewhere else. She is one of the finest songwriters I’ve ever heard, though not necessarily in the “commercial” sense.
Fleetwood Mac, Rumors – Front to back and top to bottom, a cohesive album, filled with amazing songs. The chemistry that they had as a group (despite relationship woes) is beautiful evident. This one is a must have for me on road trips. Even though the production is now dated, I get excited listening to the songs.
Kevin Prosch, Come to the Light – This record happened before Kevin stepped out of ministry for a while. I haven’t enjoyed the other work I’ve heard of his since his return to music ministry, but love the gospel elements of this. His band and back-up singers are fantastic, and there’s an honesty that resonates with me. When I need to connect to God through music, this is often the album. I wonder if he intended it to be a “worship” album in terms of what became of that genre several years after he released it. I get the sense that he was just an artist expressing himself and his spiritual journey…there just happen to be some songs on it that work for congregational singing.
Dido, Life for Rent – Again: great songs. My love of this record has a lot to do with my stage of life…I have a feeling I fall right smack in the middle of her target demographic. Regardless, there is nothing I would change on this record, and I would be devastated if I lost it. A few sweet lines that come to mind: “I’ve still got sand in my shoes and I can’t shake the thought of you”…”I won’t go down with this ship, I won’t put my hands up and surrender. There will be no white flag above my door. I’m in love and always will be” and “If my life is for rent and I don’t learn to buy, I deserve nothing more than I get, and nothing I have is truly mine”.
So…that’s my list…for now.
Jazz guitarist, music educator, and sometime rock drummer Rob Burton add his list:
Pat Metheny Group, Travels (Live) – I love this album, plain and simple. It represents a dividing line in Pat’s and the group’s timeline (as most live albums do). The opening track is the extended version of Off Ramp’s “Are You Going With Me” and is a brilliant display of building on an idea and of patience. By the peak of Pat’s guitar synth solo we are at fever pitch. I have often timed the start of this album to finish just as I reach a fishing destination. Puts me in the right state of mind to fling flies at fussy trout. Most people feel instrumental music doesn’t challenge the listener. But I can’t imagine anyone missing the intensity of this piece and either being drawn in or repulsed (and what good art doesn’t do either or both)
Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble, Officium – The title is a Latin word with various meanings, including “service”, “(sense of) duty”, “courtesy”, “ceremony.” Garbarek, a Norwegian jazz saxophonist, and The Hilliard Ensemble, a British male vocal quartet devoted to the performance of early music, who together combine Gregorian Chant with improvised saxophone. One of the record label’s (ECM) biggest sellers. Faith based music mixed with improvisation, what more could I ask for?
Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, Jack Dejohnette, Micheal Brecker and Dewey Redman, 80/81 – So much diversity in sound-scapes, dynamics and genre bending. Straight jazz, folk fusion or free jazz. I cannot think of an overt spiritual reason to include this in my list I just know this music speaks to my soul.
Joe Pass, Unforgettable – Just the man in a studio with a nylon string guitar. Just two years before succumbing to cancer and released 4 years after his death. His chops are fading but the passion is so there. He knows he is dying and plays like it. Not dissimilar to Michael Brecker’s last album, Pilgrimage, before his passing. The only difference is Joe is doing it on solo guitar so the fire is understated.
Rush, Signals – Nothing was greater for my teenaged sprit than finding out that “Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth. But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.”
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – In progressive rock there are two defining things; epic tunes pushing 10 minutes and the ‘concept’ album. Lyrically based on some dreams of Peter Gabriel the story hints at mysticism, self discovery, good vs. evil and fear.
Pink Floyd, Animals – The popularity of other Pink Floyd albums overshadows this short Orwellian style attack on capitalism in the form of yet another concept album. Sandwiched between Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Here and The Wall (and subsequent band breakup) this album was forgotten by most but resonated in me so much more. Portraying the upper class of our society, and those who emulated their behavior, as various types of animals really helped my self worth and validated my lack of interest in things material. In today’s climate of ‘dog equals pig equals baby’ portraying heads of corporations as farm animals might be considered unfair to the animals.
Joni Mitchell, Mingus – Joni had studied composition with Charles Mingus. Later, Mingus called upon Joni Mitchell in the last months of his life to work on a musical version of T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets, a project which, ultimately, was scrapped but served as the catalyst to Joni’s Mingus album. Initial recordings for this album were done with other musicians, but Joni settled upon an all-star cast of Jaco Pastorious on bass, Herbie Hancock piano, Wayne Shorter saxophones , Peter Erskine drumset and Don Alias on percussion. The album has 6 tunes, 4 of which were Mingus compositions that Joni penned lyrics for including Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. Sadly, Mingus died before this album was completed but he heard every piece except (ironically) God Must Be a Boogie Man. This tune alone stands as a valid question mark to anyone’s faith and a great poke at God’s gifts of music, genius, humour and doubt. “The plan, oh the cock-eye plan! God must be a boogie man”
Sonny Rollins, The Bridge – In 1959 Rollins retired from music, reportedly uncomfortable with his quick rise in fame that he felt unworthy of. Out from hiatus he comes and in 1962 with this record. A must have for any jazz fan. Spiritually, the concept of ‘going back to the shed’ after having made it and re-emerging 3 years later just blows my mind. What guts, what dedication!
Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, Miserere – Inspired by the Polish militia’s overreaction to civil unrest in 1981 Górecki wrote this vocal piece based on one line; Domine Deus noster Miserere nobis (Lord our God have mercy on us) The variations, dynamics, harmonies are as brilliant as they are inspiring. Not for casual listening!
So, there are the first three lists. Want to submit one of your own, or make a comment on something you’ve read here? Feel free.