Review: "O Emmanuel": Oh, Not Just Another Christmas Album

Author: Mark Doerries

Shared from: The Catholic World Report

The new album from Dynamic Catholic is J.J. Wright’s bold experiment with a Christmas album that both surprises and challenges. It also brings unexpected delights of jazz to the season.

November 08, 2016 02:49 EST

Christopher S. Morrissey

O Emmanuel is a magnificent new album that unfolds unlike any other Christmas disc you have heard before. To be precise, it is an Advent album. But that’s why it’s absolutely the perfect recording for you to play endlessly in heavy rotation during these weeks before Christmas. 

Although the secular world jumps the gun by playing non-liturgical Christmas music during Advent, you can crank up O Emmanuel as your audio rejoinder. Now, this won’t be a belligerent act on your part. On the surface, the O Emmanuel CD sounds at first like a Christmas album. But nonetheless it offers many surprising musical change-ups that will soon entice people to ask just what is that wonderful album you are listening to? At that point, you can explain to them what Advent is and how this album works. 

It’s a traditional preparation for Christmas, but with a contemporary musical twist. It takes the venerable ‘O Antiphons’ (from the Liturgy of the Hours’ December 17 to 23 Vespers prayers) as the basis and inspiration for a brand new composition commissioned by the Notre Dame Children’s Choir. The talented composer behind this project is J.J. Wright, a Grammy Award-winning pianist with a Masters of Sacred Music from the University of Notre Dame. 

Wright and the Notre Dame Children’s Choir first collaborated in 2014. The project was Wright’s jazz liturgical service Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, at Chicago’s St. Clement Catholic Church. Seeking a fresh sound for sacred music, the Notre Dame Children’s Choir commissioned Wright to compose an Advent work. not just for the choir, but also to add musical room for Wright’s jazz piano trio. This unusual combination results in O Emmanuel, which is quite simply the best jazz infusion into contemporary Christmas music since Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

As you listen more and more carefully to this album, you will realize how outstanding it is. The music here bears the mark of true distinction. You will quickly realize this is an album unlike the quality of most seasonal alternatives. 

Its unexpected combinations forge its greatest strengths. Think about it: Your favorite Christmas albums probably have something a little bit quirky and unusual to them. Your favorites usually don’t sound like the usual department store Christmas music. Whenever you put this personal Christmas music on, unless the people visiting you are family, they will probably interrupt the conversation either to remark about how the music sounds strange, or else they want to know right away what this unusual thing they have never heard before is. For example, I like to throw visitors off balance with unexpected tracks from the Carpenters’ Christmas album, or Wilson Phillips, or Sufjan Stevens, or… well, really, there’s no end to the ways once can make musical mischief at Christmas. And this is why you need to tap into J.J. Wright’s Advent experiment.

Think about why the Charlie Brown Christmas album has become such a hit. It has unusual jazz tracks, which are not quite what you would expect on the typical Christmas album. The same is true of this project by Wright. What sounds like a traditional choir number suddenly morphs into a jazz trio. Once that happens, you realize you simply don’t know what’s going to be coming next on this disc. But that’s what makes it so much fun because, in addition to the surprise factor, the performances and arrangements are of very high quality.

If you give O Emmanuel a try, you might not know what you think of the whole thing at first. But don’t worry, as I found out after a half-dozen listens, you will soon find that you love what what’s going on here.

The album begins with a prologue to the Advent theme: “Gabriel’s Message,” a song about the Annunciation that uses musical themes from the familiar carol, “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came”. Here, Gabriel brings a message to Mary, but Wright universalizes the experience for our Advent consideration. 

As Wright said in an audio interview, the Advent question he wanted to focus on is: “How is God inviting you to say Yes?” For Mary helps us understand that God is inviting us to something exciting, to something more than we could have imagined. “What we always dreamed for our life could actually be true,” suggested Wright.

For the next seven songs, the album uses the messianic titles for Christ from the ‘O Antiphons’ to take us on a musical journey. These titles are the first words after the word ‘O’ in the antiphons. The way the ‘O Antiphons’ work during Advent Vespers is that you pray them before and after praying Mary’s ‘Magnificat’. 

One of the fun things about the ‘O Antiphons’ is that these titles form an acrostic. If you take the titles backwards from December 23 to December 17, they spell out a Latin phrase when you take the first letter from each title: Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia. The Latin phrase is ERO CRAS, which means, “I will be [with you] tomorrow.”

The antiphons are especially inspiring because of their antiquity. They go back to the time of Pope Gregory the Great. Passed down to us in Latin, they reference texts of the Old Testament that prophesy the Messiah. They invoke Jesus with their Latin titles: “Wisdom” (Sapientia), “Lord” (Adonai), “Root” (Radix), “Key” (Clavis), “Star” (Oriens), “King” (Rex), and “God is With Us” (Emmanuel).

Wright explained in an interview how he took the antiphons as the basis for his Advent composition and then expanded them into a full Christmas work: “The ‘O Antiphons,’ used in the Catholic Church since at least the eighth century, are a set of hymns sung at evening prayers during the final seven days of Advent, December 17-23. Each of the seven texts addresses Christ with an illustrative title, briefly describes the title, and is followed by ‘Veni’ (‘Come’), calling for deliverance using language based on the aforementioned title. I have continued the narrative through Christ’s birth by including two additional texts in Movements 8 and 9 for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” he said.

Wright’s musical style is hard to categorize. Although trained as a jazz improviser at the New School for Jazz in NYC, he also has a passion for sacred music. While with the U.S. Naval Academy Band, he also performed with the Caribbean Jazz Project: Afro Bop Alliance, including a recording with vibraphonist Dave Samuels. That album was nominated for a Grammy for ‘Best Latin Jazz Album’ and it also won the Latin Grammy in the same category.

He brings this sort of adventurous and wide-ranging musical sensibility to the O Emmanuel project. First, as he told CWR in a recent interview, he looked at the texts of the ‘O Antiphons’, and then figured out how he wanted to set them musically. “There are similarities between certain groupings of the ‘O Antiphons.’ The first three Antiphons point toward extremely ancient names for Christ: Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse. The movements progress, just like salvation history, until we arrive at the fulfillment of the prophecy, the birth of Christ. I thought I could highlight this progression by having the texts that spoke about the most ancient ideas use the most ancient sounding music: Gregorian chant. As a result, the first three movements are infused, to varying degrees, with the original Gregorian chant melodies. I also wanted this piece to include the more familiar rhythms of contemporary music, which were communicated through the children’s choir. I used the piece to survey many of the musical techniques that have been used throughout the development of Christian sacred music. My thought was that as the text progressed forward in history, so too would its musical treatment,” explained Wright.

Thus, tracks 2 to 4 on the CD take up the first three antiphons:

December 17

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom that comest out of the mouth of the Most High (Sirach 24:5),
that reachest from one end to another, and orderest all things mightily and sweetly (Wisdom 8:1):
come to teach us the way of prudence (Proverbs 9:6).

December 18

O Adonai, dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extenso.
O Lord (Exodus 6:2, Vulgate), and Ruler of the house of Israel,
Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), and gavest him the law in Sinai (Exodus 20):
come to redeem us with an outstretched arm (Exodus 15:12-13).

December 19

O Radix Iesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people (Isaiah 11:10),
at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths (Isaiah 52:15), Whom the Gentiles shall seek:
come to deliver us, do not tarry (Habakkuk 2:3).

In the last of these three (“Radix”), Wright surprises the listener by bringing in strains of  “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”. And then the surprises keep coming as Wright deliberately decides to confront the themes of discomfort and anxiety with the next two tracks (5 and 6), “Clavis” and “Oriens”:

December 20

O Clavis David et sceptrum domus Israel,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris et umbra mortis.
O Key of David (Isaiah 22:23), and Sceptre of the house of Israel (Genesis 49:10),
that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth:
come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death (Psalm 107: 10, 14).

December 21

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae et sol iustitiae:
veni et illumina sedentem in tenebris et umbra mortis.
O Dayspring, (Zechariah 3:8; Jeremiah 23:5), Brightness of the everlasting light (Wisdom 7:26), Sun of justice (Malachi 3:20):
come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death (Isaiah 9:1; Luke 1:79).

What I think is so funny is that it sounds like a small animal gets loose in the percussion section in “Clavis”. The unusual percussion sounds thereby jolt the listener into paying extra special attention. Then, once expectations have been thus heightened, “Oriens” begins with a crazy tambourine rhythm. It soon turns the entire track into a jazz trio musical number. Wright really shines in this, his area of personal performance expertise (check out his album Inward Looking Out which got rave reviews in 2014). So, it is an extra bonus when the jazz trio resurfaces in track 9 (“VIII. When the Sun Rises in the Morning”). Consider it an enhanced Charlie Brown Christmas treat for a new generation.

Wright explained how it was the December 21 antiphon (“Oriens”, track 6) that became a gateway of inspiration for him: “I started writing the music by picking the text that resonated most with me, walking back and forth in my studio, and repeating over and over ‘O Radiant dawn, shine on those who dwell in darkness…’ I must have tried it with one hundred different melodies and rhythms until I started hearing a tambourine in the background of my thoughts. At first I pushed it away, but the rhythm kept coming through more emphatically until I heard the children’s voices burst out in my imagination, singing the melody that can be heard in ‘Oriens.’ I wasn’t sure where it came from, but it seemed like the perfect way to express this joyous and hope-filled text. I decided O Emmanuel would be a journey through time through the lens of musical styles both old and new,” he said.

It’s interesting that Wright took his inspiration here, because the “Oriens” antiphon for December 21 refers to the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1), the “Benedictus” (“The daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow”), which is a truly magnificent canticle. No doubt many a great composer is inspired by its lofty text and strives to equal it with a musical setting. I really like that we can credit the birth of this amazing album to Wright’s meditation on it.

The last four tracks of disc begin with Wright’s setting of the last two ‘O Antiphons’: 

December 22

O Rex gentium et desideratus earum,
lapis angularis qui facis utraque unum:
veni et salva hominem quel de limo formasti.
O King of the Gentiles (Jeremiah 10:7), yea, and desire thereof (Haggai 2:7),
O Corner-stone (Isaiah 28:16), that makest of two one (Ephesians 2:14):
come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7).

December 23

O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster,
expectatio gentium et salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Dominus Deus noster.
O Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14), our King and our Law-giver (Isaiah 33:22),
Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof (Genesis 49:10; John 4:42):
come to save us, O Lord our God! (Isaiah 37:20).

On December 24, the following day, the feast of the Nativity begins with first Vespers. Hence, like any good show, all the stops are pulled out at the end, and here the album crescendos to a stunning Christmas finale. Wright shifts from an Advent to a Christmas theme with the brilliant tracks, “When The Sun Rises In The Morning Sky” and “Christ the Lord Is Born Today”. At the very end, the children’s choir sings softly and slowly fades out, leaving the listener wanting more.

Wright earned his Masters of Sacred Music from the University of Notre Dame and is currently working on his doctorate. During the 2016–2017 academic year, he is studying at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome and interning with the Sistine Chapel Choir. Currently Director of Music at the Church at Point O’ Woods on Fire Island, NY, his academic studies are leading him to write his dissertation on early Baroque oratorio.

I highly recommended adding this album to your Advent listening repertoire. Its combination of children’s voices, jazz piano trio, adult vocal soloists, and the incredibly talented instrumentalists of Fifth House Ensemble, is a truly unique experience. Recorded at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, the album was produced and edited by Grammy Award-winning producer Thomas Moore and engineered by Grammy Award-winning engineer Robert Friedrich of Five/Four Productions, Ltd.; both of them have done a superb job, the album sounds fantastic. 

Related at CWR: "New Album for Advent & Christmas Melds Wide Range of Musical Styles" (Nov 7, 2016) | An interview with composer J.J. Wright 


About the Author

Christopher S. Morrissey 

Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at the Benedictine monastery of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and a Member of the Inklings Institute of Canada. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. His book of Hesiod’s poetry, Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.