The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra (MJO) is comprised of the best and the brightest of the Milwaukee Jazz scene. The musical director of the MJO is Curt Hanrahan who is also director of the Jazz Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. With his is his brother, drummer Warren Hanrahan, and Curt’s son, Tim Hanrahan on bass.
The brothers—with Tim—brought onboard Jay Mollerskov on guitar and Mitch Shiner on vibraphone to create an album of devotional music with Jazz flavorings and Jazz with a devotional approach.
The theme of the album is centered on a quote from John Coltrane. “God breathes through us so completely…so gently we hardly feel it…yet, it is our everything.”
The album opens with the Racine Dominicans chanting the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, his Pange Lingua Gloriosi/Tantum Ergo, Sing, My Tongue, The Savior’s Glory /Down in Adoration Falling. As the chant begins to fade, Tim’s bass begins to take over, then Warren’s drums, followed by Shiner’s vibes. Tim’s bass is a continuation of the chant as the group develops its way into John McLaughlin’s Resolution, the final track from the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1973 album, Birds of Fire. Mollerskov, then Curt, carry into the piece with the high melodic ascendancy and pulsing rhythms until the song fades back into the Dominicans’ chant, Tantum Ergo, the last two verses of the Pange Lingua.
In the liner notes, the Brothers tell us in no uncertain terms the point of the album. This recording portrays a historical and spiritual journey, embracing Jazz standards and sacred hymns in the effort to evoke the story of the human/divine struggle.
The second track flows seamlessly from the first with Wayne Shorter’s Footprints and John Coltrane’s Equinox. Tim’s bass introduces Footprints and is joined by the vibes then the guitar. In the switch back to vibes, the Dominicans intone the 14th century Christmas carol, Resonet in Laudibus, Let the voice of praise resound.
Curt delivers a soulful, brilliant soprano sax while Warren’s drumming is harmonic in its own right. Mollerskov’s guitar solo is wonderful. Sometimes sweet, sometimes raw, the balance of an equinox is held beautifully. Curt finishes off with the tenor sax, yielding to the Dominicans’s chant that from the Virgin comes a King.
Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday was the spiritual section from his longer opus called Black, Brown & Beige. The critics panned the great work at its opening in 1943 and Ellington rearranged the longer work into a shorter suite. Of all the songs from Black, Brown & Beige, Come Sunday remains the favorite. Its theme is in complete harmony with the Brothers’ mission to portray the human/divine struggle. Ellington’s piece, though, is full of open-eyed hope.
Shiner’s exquisite vibraphone leads off the tune. Curt’s haunting alto sax gives voice to the struggle in counterpoint to the sublime vibes. Mollerskov’s guitar is thoughtful, meditative. The sax returns in melancholy thought and the dialectics are on.
Of course, it’s Ellington, so you know it’s beautiful but the MJO Brothers never, ever detract from the original beauty while speaking their own minds about life.
Hail Mary, Gentle Woman is written by Carey Landry. Landry is well-known for his Roman Catholic hymns. Hail Mary, Gentle Woman is sweet and soulful. There is a bluesy feel and Curt’s sax does not let it go unexpressed. Tim and Warren drive the piece extremely well, keeping the steadiness of the devotion with a crescendo of worshipful exultations to close the piece instrumental, giving way to the Dominican chant of O Lumen Ecclessiae, O Light of the Church, an antiphon sung in commemoration of St. Dominic on his feast day.
O light of the church, teacher of truth,
rose of patience, ivory of chastity,
You freely poured forth the waters of wisdom,
preacher of grace, unite us with the blessed.
Jesus Christ is Risen Today is given a funky slant as the Dominicans sing behind. Warren’s cymbals punctuate the chant and the guitar and sax create—not only a joyful—a defiant declaration of the Resurrection. The Dominicans are chanting O Filii et Filiae,O Sons and Daughters, a fitting Easter hymn by Jean Tisserand, a Franciscan (c.1494). While the theme is solemn, the delivery is one of riotous exuberance. The theme and the musicianship is telling you who’s boss.
The album closes with Our Lady of Fatima by the Phillipines’ composer, Aiza Sequerra, with the Daughters of St. Paul Choir singing along. Fatima’s message was one of vigilant hope in the face of sadness and difficulty and you hear it in every note and drum stroke. There is a palpable sadness but it is not despair. No one stands out but everyone stands out in a hymn to oneness, devotion, and single-minded hope.
Hip Devotions is meditative, as well as moving, sweet and secure, pensive but powerful. In the end, it is an album to three mothers: the Blessed Virgin, Holy Mother Church, and Ruth Hanrahan.
Greg Pasenko of BluJazz Productions knows how to give voice to artists with something to say.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl