Hamilton-born David Braid has created an ode to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Photo courtesy David Braid

Canadian David Braid taps into his Catholic roots to turn out a Juno-nominated album

  • March 8, 2019
David Braid/YouTube

A person can get whiplash trying to keep up with the career of David Braid.

A year after the Canadian composer won a Juno Award for jazz album of the year, the Catholic musician is up for another Juno — this time for album of the year for his debut classical album. 

The 43-year-old Hamilton, Ont., native is an acclaimed jazz pianist and composer, winning awards for solo piano albums, jazz ensembles and for his work on the film soundtrack for a biopic about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (Born to Be Blue). 

Turning to the world of classical music may seem a departure, but it actually dovetails quite well with the music deeply rooted in Braid’s Catholic identity. His Juno-nominated classical album, Corona Divinae Misericordiae (Chaplet of the Divine Mercy), is an ode to St. Maria Faustina Kowlaska and the Divine Mercy Chaplet she introduced to the world in 1931.

The story of the album began when Braid was commissioned to write music for the 2016 SweetWater Music Festival in Owen Sound, Ont. The annual festival brings together world-class musicians for a September weekend packed with classical, jazz and contemporary performances. 

“The only instructions were to write something for choir and a group of musicians to play,” said Braid. “I started searching around for a topic and I thought it would be good to choose material that connected to my identity as a Catholic.” 

Braid said he didn’t really grow up in a musical family. He says his earliest exposure to music was at Sunday Mass. He told The Catholic Register in 2012 that he often finds the melodic qualities in hymns from The Catholic Book of Worship colouring his melodic compositions. 

“Another popular piece of mine, ‘Reverence,’ was based on the first four chords of a folk hymn that I heard a lot growing up called ‘Though the Mountains May Fall,’ ” he said. “I am a bit ashamed to admit that I always felt a little embarrassed by a kind of sentimental feeling I felt from that song, but I later used the opening chords to launch a new piece of my own.”

Braid first encountered classical music as a 15-year-old student at St. Thomas More High School in Hamilton. A teacher played Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei, Deus” during class and the ethereal harmony hypnotized him. 

“It just stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “I had never heard music that was so stirring. And ever since then, I’ve had this affinity for sacred choral music.”

Around this time he met his future wife, Christina. Together since high school, they got married in 2001 and have a five-year-old daughter, Amelia-Grace Faustina Braid. 

After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1998, he began to devote himself to original compositions. Braid has toured in the UK, Scandinavia, Europe, Russia, Central Asia, China, Australia and Canada. He won his first Juno in 2004 at age 29 in the category of traditional jazz album. A nine-time nominee, he also won Junos in 2012 for the top album in traditional jazz and in 2018 for jazz album: group. 

Braid said he first encountered the Divine Mercy Chaplet 15 years ago while attending a Tuesday cenacle related to the Marian Movement of Priests at University of St. Michael’s College.

“There was a pop version (of the chaplet) that I found, but I didn’t really like that,” he said. 

He liked the idea of bringing St. Kowalska and the Divine Mercy Chaplet to a new platform and audience. 

“I feel like it appeared as a gift at a really critical period in history…. She’s for us. She’s for our generation,” he said. “I like the idea that at the very least, this important person who introduced this chaplet is brought into the mainstream.”

Braid said composing the album was a completely different experience than his previous albums. Ideas poured out onto the page. At one point, he said it was as if the music was writing itself. 

“There was a point where all I needed was time because all the ideas were coming together and it was just unfolding on its own inertia,” he said. “It was thrilling in a certain way because it really felt like an alignment of a lot of different energy, the energy of compositional craft, the energy of love of music, spiritual energy, energy of defined purpose.”

The music was well received at SweetWater, but it wasn’t until a year and a half later that Braid felt ready to record the album. 

Patricia O’Callaghan is a classically-trained singer Braid has admired for a long time. They met 14 years ago working on O’Callaghan’s 2004 album, Naked Beauty. She was trying to expand her classical repertoire into a more pop sound and Braid was asked to bring his jazz flair to her album. 

“He just came into the studio and he was introduced by the producer as this young, hotshot pianist and he was great,” said O’Callaghan. 

 Since recording that album, O’Callaghan said they kept in touch and have crossed paths occasionally. She hadn’t talked to him in years so she was surprised to get a call about the possibility of performing the soprano section of Braid’s new album. 

“I think he’s a brilliant composer and I really love the way that, yes, this is definitely a classical piece of music but there’s definitely a voice of jazz innately in there,” she said. “He’s very easy to work with and he’s also extremely exacting and demanding of himself and others.”

Recording began in August 2017. O’Callaghan joined the Epoque Chamber Orchestra, the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Sinfonia UK Collective for almost two weeks to record the album in Prague. 

“I wanted to think about Catholic sacred music around the world,” said Braid. “Same text, same goal, but the musical manifestation is different based on culture. Catholic music (of the Novo Ordo Mass) in Africa would be quite different a hundred years ago than Catholic music in the 16th century in France, so I tried to be representative of a lot of (different traditions).”

Braid said he incorporated different musical traditions in very deliberate moments throughout the album. He drew influences from the simplicity of the Gregorian chant, to melodic styles of Indian classical music, to the powerful energy of African percussion.

The album organically incorporates diverse disciplines and sounds that create what Braid calls a “hybrid language” for today’s sacred choral music. The prestige of his Juno recognition is only one step in his dream to bring the tradition of choral music back into the  mainstream. 

“I want to find the means to tour this work around Canada and internationally, like going into churches that seem terribly empty these days and reconnect this idea of like a vespers service where a musical performance is intrinsically connected to a spiritual service,” he said. 

“So what I’m appreciative of, now that it has this sort of Juno recognition, is that hopefully it will make another step in that process to try and distinguish the work as being musically valid, musically recognized, so I can sort of proceed with this plan to bring this chaplet more public exposure.”

Corona Divinae Misericordiae is nominated alongside albums from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Joyce El-Khoury, Miriam Khalil and Barbara Hannigan with Reinbert De Leeuw.The Classical Album of the Year award will be announced March 16, a day before the Juno Awards’ live broadcast on CBC. 

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