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Matt Lemmler’s ‘‘Ode to Joy’’

Jazzing the Ninth Symphony

Elizabeth Perrin Photograph

In the right hands, jazz music has an almost limitless capacity to rework standards or pop songs with the polish of embellishment, thus creating a piece that stands on its own feet, approaching the new. John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” took a sentimental favorite from The Sound of Music, discarded the lyrics, and with a shift to slow tempo, expanded the melody on a gently ascending layered intensity. ’Trane’s reed work is supreme, and the arrangement so inventive that the show tune version has felt saccharine to me ever since – and hey, I like Julie Andrews. Willie Nelson’s versions of “Blue Skies” and “Sunny Side of the Street” rise to a similar level of artistry, taking gems from the American songbook and with that delicate guitar and tender, poetic interpretation of the lyrics you come away feeling that you’ve heard it for the first time. At least in the case of “Sunny Side,” I can hold the Duke Ellington orchestra’s instrumental version at one extreme, touch Nelson’s tender ballad at the other and emulate the philosopher Pascal’s advice to thereby “fill the intervening space.” I can’t do that for the Rolling Stones emulating the magic of Chuck Berry. Sorry, Mick.    

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony would seem a most unlikely candidate for a jazz arrangement, at least that was my take until I came upon Matt Lemmler’s version. The graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans and the Manhattan School of Music sings in a plaintive voice with tinges of country gospel, in very slow tempo, leaving spaces between certain words that plant anticipation from the pause or after thought. The lyrics are so universal as to yield flexibility in the arrangements across any number of idioms. I wonder how Allen Toussaint would sing the following:

“Melt the clouds of sin and sadness.    
Drive the dark of doubt away.
Giver of immortal goodness.
Fill us with the light of day!”

Common to churches and symphonic halls, “Ode to Joy” is the third cut on Ubuntu, a CD of diverse material released last summer by Lemmler and the New Orleans Jazz Revival Band. The first song is black spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Kim Prevost does vocals on three songs, including “Saviour, Like A Shepherd Lead Us.” Lemmler on keyboard leads an assemblage of stellar musicians.
Lemmler approaches Beethoven’s lyrics of soaring mysticism by elongating the lines, unfurling the song in something of the manner of a downhome spiritual in no special hurry.

His unlikely adaptation came as the request from a woman who was dying: Jennifer Davis, a violinist, whom Matt and his wife, Lauren Lemmler, had gotten to know as a colleague in their work with the orchestra on a road tour for Phantom of the Opera. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the Lemmlers and their 2-year-old son evacuated to Houston and stayed with Davis and her family. Later, when Davis learned that she had brain cancer, she asked Lemmler for an arrangement to play at her funeral.

“I was bawling, in tears,” he says, “but I understood I was doing something more powerful, way deeper and more spiritual than anything I’d done before.”

When the recorded version appeared on Ubuntu he also released Matt Lemmler’s Portraits of Wonder: A Tribute to the Music of Stevie Wonder. Several musicians play on both CDs: John Ellis on tenor sax, Brian Blade on drums, Jason Mingledorf on baritone sax and alto flute. Ubuntu features stellar work by Jason Marsalis on vibraphone, Evan Christopher on clarinet and David Caceres on alto horns, among others.

Lemmler grew up in the 9th Ward and attended Holy Cross High School. After graduate school in New York, he returned to New Orleans and at various times played with the Dukes of Dixieland, Pete Fountain, Connie Jones and jazz modernists Steve Masakowski and James Singleton and vocalist Leah Chase.

Lemmler had just started a tenure track position teaching in the University of New Orleans jazz program when the storm hit. He found work with a church choir and a jazz club in Houston, though his marriage of 17 years came to an end. He eventually moved back.

In January of this year, many months after the recording was released, Lemmler sang “Ode to Joy” at the funeral of a family friend accompanied by Lauren on violin; their 9-year-old son Miles on cello; Matt’s brother Michael on piano and organ; and sister-in-law Ashley Lemmler on vocals. Perhaps it was the synergy that comes from people in the pews, or playing with a more pared down ensemble, but he seemed more at ease with the song, letting lines pull the melody. The deep sorrow in the room, perhaps, aided his interpretation. Roaming in a religious vein, Lemmler is gaining as a vocalist.

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