Is God a Jazz Musician?

8 02 2010

Last week I was having lunch with Peter Swann, a friend and the Executive Director of Aid Sudan, when we struck up a lively conversation about music.  We were both music majors in college, he a trombone performance major and I a contemporary Christian music major.  And in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess to being a giant music theory nerd.  (No doubt many of you would say that I could remove the words “music theory” and the phrase would still be accurate.)

Music theory is like the “rules” of music.  It tells you what notes sound good together and why.  It tells you what chords to play beneath a certain melody.  It tells you how to write four-part harmonies without using parallel octaves.  It’s quite a useful thing.

Of course, the downside to music theory is that it can become prescriptive instead of descriptive, that is, it can confine the creation of music to a set of handy rules, instead of simply describing why a certain musical creation sounds the way it does.

Our friend and producer, Scott Williamson, taught me an important lesson about this during one of our recording sessions for the BDA album back in 2004.  We were recording background vocals and he sang a suggested part that he thought sounded good.  I asserted that we couldn’t use that part because the notes weren’t a part of the chord that was being played underneath.  He responded by reminding me that music theory is only useful as long as it serves the music.  The music is what sounds good, not what looks right on paper.  And he was right!  His part did sound good!  In fact, far from serving the music, my dogmatic adherence to theory was hindering the music.

Jason Webb during the Dave & Jess Ray sessions

Jazz musicians know the truth of this statement.  Most of them know music theory inside and out.  But when they they improvise they don’t confine themselves to the four walls of theory.  Instead they let their musical creativity wander freely and sometimes find beauty in the most unexpected, dissonant places.  You can hear it in Jason Webb’s piano part for the song “Face of God” off the album Dave & Jess Ray.  You may not know the rules of music theory, but trust me when I say he breaks a few!  But the result is beautiful!

Do we ever act like that with God?  When He suggests a melody for us to sing and do we insist that it must be sung differently?  After all, we say, it’s not supposed to work like that.  God is not supposed to use circumstances like this, or people like that, or lead me to places like this.  But the Bible is filled with examples of God finding beautiful melodies in unexpected places.  Who else could have given victory to Gideon’s 300-strong marching band of trumpeters?  Who else would have chosen the youngest of Jesse’s sons to be the king of Israel?  Who else would have sent His only Son to be birthed in squalor, and achieve ultimate victory through the harsh dissonance of death?  Only our God.

Maybe God is a jazz musician.  Maybe He’s calling each of us to sing a melody that takes us to unexpected, even dissonant places so that He gets the glory.  Will you play along?

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