Cyrus Chestnut wrote 'Saga of the Cross' only a few months back, a new composition to be performed with The Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir in Harlem.
“I teach at Howard University in Washington, DC of which there’s a great music program. What stands out from the program is this vocal jazz group called ‘Afro Blue’ under the direction of Connaitre Miller. So I’ve been hearing around the vocalists and hearing all of these vocal arrangements and all. So it’s kind of gotten planted in the ear,” Chestnut said.
In some ways, writing for the large Abyssinian Choir was a new musical challenge for Cyrus Chestnut.
“Choral writing is a work in progress for me," Chestnut said. "I’m not trying to be so traditional but I’m not trying to be so contemporary. You don’t want to write too many crazy harmonies because on the piano it might sound one way but with voices it might sound different. It’s a balance. Sometimes you have to challenge the voice, but other times it’s just better to stay off. So seeking balance, I would say that’s the challenge.”
James Davis Jr. Director of Music Ministries and Fine Arts at The Abyssinian Baptist Church says the 'Saga of the Cross' program is a fundraiser for AbyWest, a community center being built by the main sanctuary.
“It’s a community center not only for youth not only in the church, but in the Harlem community. A place where they can get anything from SAT prep classes, job training, to resources the Harlem community needs with particular emphasis on young people,” Davis said.
Davis recalls a Christmas program Cyrus Chestnut performed at Abyssinian a few years back.
“He came up with some really cool jazz arrangements of familiar Christmas tunes, but of course when Cyrus puts his genius on something it becomes something totally new and unique.”
Davis expects no less from 'Saga of the Cross'.
“It’s a celebration of culture, African American culture. It’s a celebration of one of our living legends in the person of Cyrus Chestnut. It’s going to be a great performance. The Abyssinian Choir has built a reputation in the community and in the city. This collaboration is very unique and doesn’t happen a lot. “
And for now, it’ll only happen once. Cyrus Chestnut performs 'Saga of the Cross' with The Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir and a few special guests for Good Friday.
“We clap our hands. We stomp our feet. We shout for joy," said Chestnut. "That’s what they call ‘havin church’ which should happen often but when you celebrate on the holiday it’s hopefully even that much more.”