If you’re looking for a jazz album for the Christmas season with a more spiritual orientation than Vince Guaraldi’s evergreen, A Charlie Brown Christmas, you might want to give a listen to Song of Simeon from the Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship. As Scruggs explains in the liner notes, “My vision for this recording was to create a musical journey through the deeper themes of the Christmas narrative.”
To this end he selected 11 pieces “to formulate a layered chronology that illustrates the profound, spiritual mystery of the radical Biblical story of the birth of Christ.” The album he came up with is certainly a testament to his spiritual journey, but it is also a testament to his musical artistry and that of his collaborators as well. Song of Simeon is straight-ahead jazz played with skill and spiritual intensity.
Joining Scruggs, who plays tenor and soprano saxophone, are pianist Brian Hogans, guitarist Dan Baraszu, drummer Marlon Patton, bassist Tommy Sauter, and percussionist Kinah Boto Ayah. Trumpeter Joe Granden, along with a horn ensemble, is featured on a Dixieland version of the Black spiritual, “Go Down, Moses” in an arrangement, we are told in elaborate artist’s notes on Scruggs’ website, based on a setting by Louis Armstrong. Although not usually a song associated with Christmas, it is one of the album’s many highlights.
The album is divided into two parts. The significance of these is explained by Scruggs’ father and spiritual advisor, the Reverend C. Perry Scruggs, Jr. Based on Luke 2:32 where the “Song of Simeon” proclaims the Nativity as “a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel,” Rev. Scruggs points out that the first part called “The Glory” celebrates the “fulfillment of the promise to God’s people.” The second part, “The Light,” is the “gift of new light to the world.” Both parts utilize musical material both well known and more obscure.
Part I begins with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” from a 19th century adaptation, and just to give an idea of some of his thinking, he explains: “Three different voices state the theme, each with the same melody but different harmony to symbolize the Holy Trinity.” “The Annunciation – Gabriel’s Message,” based on a Basque carol is next with a triumphant emphasis. “The Song of Mary – Magnificat” in a 1928 setting and the familiar “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” follow. “Nunc Dimittus – Song of Simeon” and the stirring “Go Down, Moses” close out the first part.
Part II opens with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” arranged from a 16th century melody by bassist Sauter. It includes “T’was in the Moon of Wintertime,” known as “The Huron Carol,” and a powerful “Ideo Gloria,” which is based on another 16th century melody. A swinging version of “Joy to the World,” with the return of the horn ensemble closes out the album’s second part.
The album includes a little booklet with the English translations of all the lyrics which are also available on the website, along with extensive explanations and analyses of what is going on musically in each of the pieces.