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James Falzone on Saturday Jazz and Sunday Worship Synergy

James Falzone explains why being both a professional musician and church music director makes him better at each.

James Falzone is a clarinetist, composer, improviser and educator based in Chicago, Illinois. He directs several of his own ensembles, including Allos Musica, a quartet that blends Western and Middle Eastern traditions. He works in styles not common for Christian artists, such as improvisational jazz and contemporary classical. He is also the music director at Grace Chicago Church. In this edited conversation, James Falzone talks about the synergy between professional and church music and between improvisation and spiritual formation.

Since this interview, James Falzone has been appointed as music department chair at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. He steps down from his position at Grace Chicago after 15 years of service.

What inspired you to become a professional musician?

I was a football-playing, carefree kid, not interested in the arts at all. My public school had a vibrant music program however, and when I was in 5th grade, our music teacher showed us flashcards of musical instruments while playing Peter and the Wolf. When she got to the clarinet and the cat, I thought, “That looks cool!” So I went home and told my parents I wanted to play the clarinet.

My mother’s brother, James Di Pasquale, is an Emmy-winning film composer and jazz saxophonist and was my early influence and teacher. In high school, I began to investigate the clarinet’s role in other world traditions. I would listen to an exotic instrument and wonder, “How can I make the clarinet sound more like a ney flute?” I began playing professionally at age 16 and was a classical clarinet major in college but was always composing, improvising and playing in jazz groups. My goal has always been to pursue a personal voice as an artist. The clarinet is just a conduit, though a fascinating one.

How did you become the music director at Grace Chicago Church?

My friend Bob Reid was starting Grace Chicago in 2002. At that same time, I was relocating to Chicago from Boston, where I had just finished a graduate degree in improvisation at the New England Conservatory. Bob asked me to consider directing music for Grace and I confess I was skeptical at first, not knowing how my musical vision would be of service to the church. But Bob spoke of a church where music and the arts were integral and where artistry was taken seriously. Grace Chicago began on Advent 1, 2002, with me often lining out hymns on clarinet for the 40 or so people in attendance. As the congregation grew, we added guitar, violin, cello, hand drums and a singer. Fifteen years later, here I am, still going.

Do you feel any tension between your life as a professional musician and your role as music director at Grace Chicago Church?

There’s always been a degree of tension between the Christian world and the world of the arts. Frankly, I don’t get it, but it’s real. I felt that tension most acutely shortly after I became a Christian in high school and began attending an evangelical church. People there said things like, “Well, you’re going to stop playing that music now, right?” At the time I was listening to and being influenced by a wide array of artists, from Laurie Anderson to Albert Ayler to Olivier Messiaen. There was great beauty in it all and I saw no problem in continuing my interest. Yet I knew I needed an understanding of why there was no problem, a theology of experimental music, if you will. L’Abri Fellowship was a help towards that end, as they have been for so many artists, and the writings of people like Nicholas Wolterstorff, especially in his Art in Action, helped me think more robustly about the relationship between faith and art. Part of the reason why I saw no tension, and still don’t, is because to me, the act of making music (especially improvised music) is a deeply spiritual process.

Can you say a bit more about the implications of improvisation?

I think of improvisation as an embodied spiritual practice, not unlike prayer or yoga or tai chi. Improvisation is equal parts process and outcome and offers an organizing structure by which people make sense of life’s daily necessities and traumas. In any improvised practice you’re constantly reacting to the present by making sense of the past. That’s exactly what I do on the bandstand: I play a gesture, a note, a phrase—and that becomes my past. Then I stand in a new now. I play a few more notes, and that becomes the past. There is a new now, and the process continues. Embedded in the whole process is the acceptance, even the celebration, of risk and imperfection.

The sense of learning and growing in the midst of decision making is, to me, a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual life. The continuous cycle of moment-by-moment living resembles the life of faith. Improvisation is infused with freedom—openness to what is possible in any given moment. The freedom of improvisation can also happen in a worship service, when there’s a sense that the pastor, musicians, liturgists and worshipers are fully present, ready to listen and react to whatever God has brought to that moment.

How does improvisation function in worship and life at Grace Chicago Church?

In the context of worship, there is a lot of room left open to responding in the moment. This can take different shapes and might be me picking up a penny whistle spontaneously to create a background to a scripture reading or an ensemble might play an unexpected groove under a beloved hymn, infusing it with new meaning and potential. Sometimes spontaneity is planned out, such as breaking the moment of silence just after confession. For 15 years now, I’ve let that be an improvised moment from the ensemble or an individual musician. I remember once when a parishioner came up to me after the service and said, tearing up, “That moment after the silence, the music sounded broken, like I feel.”

Being sensitive to improvisation, there is also something I see at work in the congregation as a whole, which is how we improvise as a body of human beings. Our church has improvised theologically, culturally and even in terms of our relationship to the world as we’ve moved to different neighborhoods throughout Chicago. For instance, we now meet in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, traditionally an area with a high LGBT population. We’re dialoguing about how to be a place where everyone can come and everyone can serve.

What does your career as a musician contribute to what you do on Sunday?

I’d like to believe that it offers a deeper role for music in a worship context. Because my Saturday night gig and my Sunday morning service might only be separated by a few hours of time, I don’t check my artistry at the narthex. There is a wonderful place for amateur musicians in the Church, and I would never suggest anything different. But I’d also encourage the role of well-trained, professional musicians who have studied the history of music, knows its depths and can bring something profound to the liturgical context. We expect this of our pastors, so why not our musicians? At Grace Chicago, the small ensemble I direct is made up of all professional musicians, and this allows almost endless possibilities. Some of the music we’ve made together, bleary-eyed on Sunday mornings, has been the most enjoyable I’ve made in my career.

Church music is often not the purest form of music from a musician’s standpoint, so why do you enjoy it so much?

I like the fact that it’s embodied music, that it’s service. When I look out at the congregation and see someone I know who is going through a rough time, singing words of comfort and longing, with their eyes closed, I feel as if I’m involved in one of the purest forms of music making. We can’t forget that music is a temporal art—it takes time—and the worship experience allows for a heightened sense that we are all doing this together, sharing the time we have on this earth. Singing together reminds us of this. This is profound, and experiencing it has greatly shaped how I think of my life as an artist, something I have been surprised by, truth be told.

How so?

Milton Babbitt, an American composer, famously wrote “Who Cares If You Listen?” to explain why “serious” composers should not worry about audience responses. There was a time I would have agreed with this. But I’ve come full circle on the issue, and I believe my work at Grace Chicago is a part of this. I’m more concerned than ever with the effect of my music on the listener and, really, about the whole process of doing what I do, from the composing to the rehearsing to the performance and, even after the fact, how the listener might think about my music in retrospect. This is not to say I would ever pander to an audience or create music that was dishonest, but I want to serve in the jazz club or the concert hall in the same way I serve the congregation at Grace Chicago. Again, we’re back to the shared sense of time, which, more and more, I’m convinced is the gift that music offers to the human experience.


Read James Falzone’s essay on improvisation and faith (pp. 4-5). Download recent hymns by Falzone. Listen to a sample of his recent choral work, My Bright Abyss. He recommends the blog I Care If You Listen.