On record: James Taylor – The Rochester Mass (Cherry Red)


Ever felt the need for a ‘funk mass’? Well James Taylor has, and this year The Rochester Mass received its premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in April, before a performance in the cathedral of its home city in June. It was the South Bank who commissioned the work, which James wrote in memory of his late father Clive. The recording features choristers from Rochester Cathedral, as well as the fulsome organ.

What’s the music like?

Rather curiously, Taylor opts to present the mass in reverse order, so we begin with the jerky motif of the Sanctus, working through the Agnus Dei (complete with flute cadenza) to the Benedictus, Gloria and finally the Kyrie.

There is more than a passing reference to Leonard Bernstein’s setting of the Mass, a much bigger work but one that also operates with a policy of musical freedom. James Taylor doesn’t let his music go in quite the same way Bernstein did, preferring to opt for a little more ecclesiastical control. This means he is not self-indulgent in the way so many of these adaptations can be (remember Rick Wakeman’s The Gospels?!) but that he still pushes a boundary or two.

Part two of the Sanctus shows that Taylor can achieve a really grand sound with choir and organ – there is an impressive climax – and the response is a kind of joyous wig-out that sounds a lot better than it reads on paper.

Does it all work?

More or less. It is quite difficult to work out what gives this piece a special connection with Rochester, other than the performers being from the Kent town – and it is not quite clear why Taylor felt the need to reverse the order of the movements. But these are perhaps over-fussy points, because the music itself is meaningful and direct, and achieves the difficult balance of bringing funk into more classical structures without losing its identity. It also has the obvious emotion generated by the passing of Taylor’s father.

On occasion the music can sound forced – the Agnus Dei Duet being a good example – but that is balanced by music of fresh spontaneity, such as the unexpectedly gorgeous Flute Cadenza linking Parts One and Two of the Agnus Dei. In the closing Kyrie you get the feeling Taylor has mastered the unusual blend of cathedral choir and funk group. A unique sound indeed!

Is it recommended?

Yes, if you want to hear something different – and if you want to hear a creative way of taking on one of music’s most traditional forms.


The Rochester Mass can be heard on Spotify here:

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