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New Hope Jazz Mass revisited

From a record collectors perspective it’s fun to dwell back when you first found or heard about a certain record. The personal nostalgia to keep track of ones musical finds and listening habits at a certain point in time. I was first introduced to New Hope Jazz through the Spiritual Jazz compilations put together by Gerald Short back in 2010’s, ‘Duke and Trane’ was the song; Bassist Pekka Sarmanto’s (the brother of Heikki Sarmanto) heavy bass laden motif grabs hold while the the instrumental layers are introduced. First it’s Seppo Paakkunainen’s calling tenor solo while the vocal groups, Gregg Smith Quartet and 60-piece Long Island Symphonic Choral Association are joining in with Maija Hapuoja’s wordless vocals are icing it on top. An extremely powerful piece of music marked 10:27 minutes.

The liner notes to the original New Hope Jazz Mass release tells us that the opening song is based on a sixteenth century Finnish folk tune, Sarmanto heard it as an echo of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Heikki Sarmanto utilized the virtuosic abilities of his vocalist, Maija Hapuoja, inspired in the same way Duke Ellington used Alice Babs in his Sacred Concerts. Soaring the highest altitudes, surrounded by a transparent mist of sound from the chorus. Further explained in this Sarmanto Interview (done before the St. Michaels church premiere) in New York Times 19.05.78 by jazz critic John S. Wilson.

The seed of the dedication of the mass was planted when I spoke to Duke Ellington after hearing one of his ‘sacred concerts’ in Boston, later, when Pastor Peterson suggested a mass, a lamp went on in my head. Of course—it would be for Duke, who was a very religious man.

Then, when I began writing the mass, I based the opening theme on a Finnish folk tune from the 16th century. Playing it, I suddenly heard an echo of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme.’ I could imagine Coltrane playing it on soprano saxophone. So, because ‘A Love Supreme’ was an expression of Coltrane’s religious feelings, I added him to the dedication.”

It’s just an expression of my feeling toward two giant musicians, It’s a synthesis of a Scandinavian folkloric feeling, gospel and blues with Ellington voicings in a couple of places and an improvised dance accompanied by voices, something that used to be done in Finnish villages where there was no band.

Sarmanto 78

Back in those days, Jazz Vespers was an established event on Sunday afternoons at Saint Peter’s Church (619 Lexington Ave, Manhattan, New York). Rev. John Garcia Gensel who curated the concerts made sure everyone was welcome despite of religion, race or colour. When the Saint Peter’s new church was built into the Citicorp Center skyscraper it was Finland’s innovative leadership in church architecture that provided a link to commissioning a mass for St. Peter’s by a Finnish musician.

Pastor Ralph Edward Peterson of St. Peter’s got the idea for the mass several years ago, when plans were being made for the new church. He had just sent an architect to Finland to look at modern churches there. I was here studying piano with Margaret Chaloff in ‘Boston and gigging around with Charlie Mariano, the saxophonist, with whom I had played in Europe, and Eero Koivistoinen, a Finnish saxophonist who had come over with me. One of our gigs was the jazz vespers at St. Peter’s.

Sarmanto 78

Some of the lyrics to the songs in New Hope Jazz Mass are taken from religious liturgy, but three of the titles are written specifically for the mass by Aina Swan Cutler, an american born of Finnish parents who had spoken the finnish language during her child years. She had attended a concert in Boston by Mr. Sarmanto at which some of his songs were sung in Finnish, and from there on a coincidental collaboration emerged.

She came backstage to thank me, she was a very nice lady, very polite. As a friendly gesture, I gave her one of my songs in Finnish and my address. A few weeks later, I received a letter from her with an English setting of my song —she insists on calling it a setting rather than a translation because the language is so difficult, it is impossible to translate.

This was a total shock, because for years I had been looking for someone who could set my songs in English. All her life she had been just a housewife and a mother. But she had sometimes written poetry and put it in a drawer, never showing it to anyone. She was a closet poet. Now she has written settings for 60 of my songs. I think that all that she was missing was the music. She understands the ethnic feeling of the songs so that she can make the same thing happen in English that happens in Finnish.

Sarmanto 78

Heikki Sarmanto premiered the New Hope Jazz mass this weekend in May 1978, first at the Ward Melville High School in Long Island and then for the official premiere at St. Peter’s on the Sunday. Autumn the same year three concerts would be held at the Temppeliaukio Church, (also known as the Church of the Rock) is a Lutheran church, an architectural wonder built into the landmass and rocks in the Töölö neighborhood of Helsinki, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 61, and built in 69.

When the choir came to to do the Temppeliaukio Church concerts at Helsinki Festival (Helsingin juhlaviikot) we had to have three performances as they were all sold out, packed. Then we went on the road, we toured 4 or 5 major cities in Finland, and then the choir went back to America.
It was great success and always sold out, we should do one more in the future…

Sarmanto 2022

For us who never had the chance to be at these monumental concert performances, they where mixed live and recorded direct to tape by professional recording engineer Juoko Ahera, first performance was then published and pressed in great numbers on FINLANDIA Records in 1979 (CAT#FA 201) as a 2xLP. However recently Heikki Sarmanto found the second day tapes recorded on the 8th of September 79 and contacted Jazzaggression records for a possible future publication.

It’s a better performance, and my ensemble is more confident with Pekka Pöyry and Seppo Paakkunainen taking turns and changing a little around who did the soloing in different parts.

Sarmanto 2022

All 12 songs including Duke and Trane have been remastered, the composers prefered version of the jazz mass have now been published for the first time. New Hope Jazz Mass – second day concert recordings from the Helsinki Temppeliaukio Church are now available on DigiPack CD and through all streaming channels from Jazzaggression Records (CAT #JACD736)

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Interview with Cynth from the High Risk group

The High Risk group was an early all female quartet who started playing together in the early seventies, the lineup was Virginia Rubino on keys and vocals, Cyndy “Cynth” Mason on flute and sax, Bobi Jackson on bass and vocals and Sandi Ajida on percussion. Bobi and Sandi have moved on but Cynth and Virginia are still very much musically active playing today. Check out Cynth’s own musical pages on flutmedicine.com and Virigina’s virginiarubino.com. Following the release of the group’s Sisters love EP we had a brief chat with Cyndy Mason about the group, the music and the tymes.

Tell me a bit about the band, HIGH RISK, how did the group come about?
In the early 70’s there were many creative women expressing themselves in all the arts.  In Venice Beach, California there was a special concentration of musicians and artists and there were many women’s bands (Lizzy Tisch, Bertha, Red Zinger, Teda and Dog Squeeze, La Silvia, to name a few.) There was constant jamming at each other’s houses and every week-end the Very Very Venice Festival showcased various configurations of groups and musicians at the Pavilion on the beach.  The members of High Risk played with these various configurations of musicians, men and women.  We got to know each other musically and recognized our particular expertise. Sandi Ajida had started her career with Olatunji and played on his first album Drums of Passion, she toured with the Ohio Players just before she came to Venice. Cynth had been under contract with Warner Bros. and had made an album with Paul Williams entitled “The Holy Mackerel”, Virginia, the youngest of the group, was a classically trained pianist and all agreed had one of the greatest voices we had ever heard.  Bobi began her career in the Haight Ashbury and played with every name band that came out of that part of the world. Bobi, who was the brains and business mind of the band, approached Virginia and suggested the four of us start playing together.  Cynth was working on a film with Donna Deitch and brought High Risk in to do the sound track. Judy Grahn’s poems “The Common Women” had recently been published and Cynth suggested to put the poems to music as they reflected the themes in the film “Woman to Woman”. Virginia wrote a concerto to the themes of the poems and Bobi wrote “Degradation” which also reflected  themes in the film.

What feels so special about listening to the High Risk single is that is has kind of two unique sides to it, there is the jazzy Common Woman and the more soulful funky Degradation. Was this the profile of band playing both R&B and Jazz or was this coincidental with the assembly of musicians in the group?
As musicians we were all classically trained and then found our influences that made us unique.  Ajida studied with the Royal Court Drummer from Ghana who was attending Temple University in Philadelphia as was Sandi. She graduated with a music degree.  Bobi was born and raised in New York City and was influenced and played with many of the greats from that part of the world and brought the R & B feel to the band. Virginia began her studies at a young age in the classics and was gifted with an exceptional voice. Cynth, daughter of a jazz drummer and classically trained, studied with the first chair flute of the LA Philharmonic, but when she heard Alice Coltrane she stopped reading music and learned to play from the heart.  I cannot stress enough the influence of living in Venice had. There were so many influences and we were constantly learning from everyone.  But it was our recognition of our level of musicianship and a knowing that we could do something new in the blossoming world of “women’s music” that was the glue that kept us together. One day we figured that between us we had almost 70 years of playing experience.

It also states on the back sleeve it’s the soundtrack to a movie called ‘Woman to Woman’ by Donna Deitch. We must admit we can’t find any info on this film online, did it ever happen?
The documentary “Woman to Woman” was a student Masters thesis by Donna Deitch attending the University of California Los Angeles.  The film was finished and premiered In Berkeley. It may have had a limited commercial release.

How was the single received at the time and how was it distributed?
The single was well received so much so that Olivia Records, the first woman’s record label in the US. released it as their first record.

Tell us a little about the music vibe in LA back in seventies. And how is it now, compared to back then.
In the seventies the music was organic, reflective of the times, women were waking up to their potential, the Vietnam war was raging, the Black and Brown communities were fighting the oppression they had endured for so long and were waking up to their potential and all of this was coming out in the music.  Someone once said to me recently the difference between now and then is that we had theme songs.  There was an urgency, we didn’t have cell phones or answering machines or social media.  We had each other and we had the knowing that we had to change the world and were willing to put our lives on the line for it.  We were passionate, committed and also dedicated to having fun.  Dancing was important, lyrics were important and the revolution was just around the corner.

In many respects Hip Hop carries on this zeitgeist and of course now we are a global community and the internet has made it possible for more diversity and voices to be heard.

We are also thrilled to hear that you played with Somayah (featured on the Brotherman single) she seemed like a special individual on many levels. How was it working with her and in what band was this?
I knew Somayah as Peaches and we met when I worked on a film about the breakfast program the Black Panthers ran in Los Angeles. After she left the Panthers, Peaches started writing songs about her experience and vision.  She asked me to come and open with her at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, a well-known nite club where Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt got their start. The Ash Grove mainly featured the greatest blues players of our time, Leadbelly, B.B. King, John Mayall, Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and Esther Phillips etc. The band consisted of Peaches, myself on Sax and Flute, a conga player and a pianist. We opened for Albert King and the first thing Peaches would say to that blues audience was…”I’m here to stamp out the blues.”  Peaches had a strength and a sweetness to her songs, not to mention she played the autoharp which was an instrument “of the people”.  Everyone in public school in California had to learn how to play it. Peaches would end her show with the song “Four Women” written by Nina Simone, who was also a great influence on us all.  The song ends with the words “My name is Peaches” and Peaches would slide across the stage on her knees, autoharp in hand and stop just before the footlights. Unforgettable. It was an honor to play with her and if you know her story, she is one of the bravest women I have ever known.

What other jazz artists are your most favourite, in any genre.
My father’s heroes were Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I was raised listening to them, then Stevie Wonder came along and I stopped being a jazz snob. Miles called Jazz social music and really that is what music is to me.  From the human heart and social. Alice Coltrane was the greatest influence, from her early days to her introducing world music.  Playing together on stage she would have the New England Conservatory of Strings, Charlie Hayden on bass, Rashid Ali on drums, an east Indian sitar and tabla, a multitude of African instrumentalists and an African church choir singing Indian bajans. She was the first.  I was fortunate to spend time with her and learn about music and life.ja02front

We know that Bobi Jackson has passed, is this band still in touch with each other.
Regrettably Sandi Ajida also passed in 1992.  I have stayed in touch with Judy Grahn and Max Dashu and due to your re-release of the High Risk disc I have reconnected with Virginia.  We are all happy that this work is being recognized again and I’m sure Sandi and Bobi would feel the gratitude we do.

The High Risk full album is now now available for order from Jazzaggression Records. Get it here!