The last two Sundays, I was at Friends’ Meeting House over the road from Euston station in central London. Working as a hired musician, not for the Quakers (Friends), but for another church who had hired space there as well as a bunch of session pros. I would describe them as a Nigerian independent evangelical charismatic church, but it might convey more to readers with roots in the music business and not the Christian church to call it a somewhat modernised gospel church.
The brief and situation for the afternoon of Sunday 11th was fairly straightforward: a more or less concert setting, albeit with interspersed live and video presentation connected with the Christmas story. Musical direction, rhythm section and core singers (soloists and parts of gospel choir) from the church’s own people, boosted by hired hands bulking out the choral parts and supplying seven-piece strings and the same number of horns (in the jazz / soul sense: flute, two saxes, trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba the one ‘house’ interloper in the ‘orchestral’ sections). Played and sung more or less by the charts, with tweaks here and there but little that would surprise any one with any big band or pit experience.
I should say that there was never any expectation of, let alone condition upon, the session musicians being spiritually aligned with the clients (so long as, obviously, we raised no objections or conflict!). In fact I think that side of the situation (a potential minefield!) was admirably sensitively handled by all concerned.
That didn’t prevent a fair amount of cultural and musical adjustment being required on many sides over the course of the engagement! I’ve stated often enough that the jobbing pro musician’ experience is generally of spending about as much time performing as rehearsing, if not slightly more. For a concert of perhaps 90 minutes’ music, the majority of the orchestral players had 13 hours of rehearsal scheduled. Admittedly, that included pizza breaks (pizza and sides provided!), but I still have to admit I struggled to adapt to stated start times not even seeing everyone needed in the room, and to a generally much more relaxed rate of progress than the slightly frenzied focus of a paid classical rehearsal with 5 hours from first downbeat to doors opening to the public.
Lest it be thought this was a one-way street, the gentleman (in the best sense of the word) doing the sizeable job of integrating the whole musical picture had to put up with being asked (a couple of times) for a clearer downbeat and indeed a more precise beat generally than his home territory of shaping a gospel choir and band called for during one complexly scored coda with no rhythm section. Nonetheless a few rocky moments in the performance stemmed from songs starting very sharp from a previous item, the rhythm section not quite picking up the first bar and the house musicians being more comfortable picking up how long the intro would now become than the session players, rather more tied to the structure of their written parts.
But nonetheless it was a good atmosphere and, as I say, a fairly familiar broadly performance-type environment. And the crowd were certainly having a great time, especially in the bookending ensemble set pieces: a chunk of through-composed gospel lifting some musical motifs from ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ and taking its lyrical cue from the angels’ song in Luke’s nativity story, and a pretty direct cover of Quincy Jones’s reworking of the Hallelujah Chorus. (Seriously, watch it now. You won’t regret it.)
Yesterday posed somewhat different challenges. A carol service it may have been (well, there were some carols; and some gospel-Christian rock-worship songs; and one of last Sunday’s big numbers), but most importantly this was definitely a church service, and the elements of charismatic Christianity that had perhaps been more reference points the week before were now of course the core of the event.
The hired musicians were just a quartet of strings this time. And the charts we had were clearly central to the traditional carols; not so much to the other songs, where the order of sections followed by the lead singers bore I suspect only a coincidental resemblance to the one in the PDFs emailed 24 hours before! (No rehearsal at all for the service by the way.) Structure of the service was also decidedly fluid and heavily dependent on the time taken by the guest preacher for his sermon and the direction by his moving from speech to song to call to what I would describe as congregational ritual action – evidently unforewarned but followed fluidly by rhythm section (especially keys players supplying improvised ‘mood music’ a lot of the way) and congregation. I would probably have found this a lot more interesting, and less tense, had I not been under a microphone that might or might not have been muted when I wasn’t playing and on a stage right behind the lectern in the congregation’s eyeline. Expectations or not, I felt decidedly visible sitting out most of the congregation participation!
I need to repeat that in many ways these were a fun pair of gigs (because both were ultimately bill-paying gigs for me; one of the strangest things about them), and that the appreciation of what we were doing was truly touching and the welcome faultlessly warm. Nonetheless, for all my roots in (certain particular parts of) the Christian Church, it felt like an excursion to a foreign culture, with all the internal tensions that are apt to be part and parcel of cultural exchange for the conscientious left-leaning liberal Westerner. Which said, would I play the gig again? Absolutely – even if all the more so for being the better prepared for the local norms by doing it once …