American composer J.J. Wright, 31, from Buffalo, N.Y., has released an album of sacred music entitled “O Emmanuel.” RNS photo/acourtesy of Kirk Richard Smith

J.J. Wright’s ‘O Emmanuel’ album mixes it up

By  Josephine McKenna, Religion News Service
  • December 23, 2016

ROME – A young American composer is shaking up traditional perceptions of sacred music and finding new ways to combine his love of jazz with his Christian faith.

J.J. Wright’s album of sacred music “O Emmanuel,” produced with the University of Notre Dame’s Children’s Choir, has been high on Billboard’s classical music chart for weeks after debuting at No. 1.

While his album is inspired by “antiphons,” traditional texts dating back to the fifth century, Wright has added jazz and gospel music to create an album that is difficult to categorize.

“As a jazz musician I can’t help but bring my background into my compositions,” said Wright, a native of Buffalo, N.Y. “But I think one of the things we lose through the lens of history is understanding how secular and sacred music have always had this dialogue.”

The 31-year-old composer said the participation of children from the choir is critical to the album’s success.

“The beauty of this children’s choir from Notre Dame is that it is ecumenical,” he said. “It is a great opportunity to bring children together from a young age to build communities of unity and inclusiveness.”

Wright is a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Married with three young children, he is currently doing a one-year internship in Rome with the Vatican body responsible for sacred music and he is also an intern with the Sistine Chapel Choir.

Forty children from the university choir near South Bend, Ind., took part in recording the album, which Wright hopes will be the first of many. Eventually, he dreams of founding an organization devoted to the creation of sacred music.

“I really want to be able to create an organization or an institute that promotes a world-class performing ensemble and a comprehensive education program, as well as a means for distributing music and making it accessible for people who otherwise would not be able to experience it,” he said.

But his toughest audience may be in the global capital of Roman Catholicism. “It’s a challenge for people especially in Rome, where tradition has been the strongest,” he said.

Wright has, at least, one fan.

Walter Marzilli, one of Wright’s professors and head of choral activities at the Vatican’s Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, said he finds plenty of Catholic music traditions in Wright’s work.

“The dialogue between the instruments and the voices is very refined and all the performers are excellent,” he said. “The CD finishes with a courageous and stirring Hallelujah in the best Renaissance tradition.”

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