Jeremy Walker wants to make one thing clear: Just because he has set psalms to music doesn’t mean he’s sending a message. He isn’t saying he’s religious — or not religious. He doesn’t want to be pegged or pigeonholed.
“7 Psalms,” Walker’s new evening-length work for jazz quartet, solo voice and choir, which premieres Saturday at Bethel College, is about meeting an artistic challenge, taking a new direction and having nothing to lose.
Inspired by Johnny Cash and John Coltrane, Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Radiohead, Walker wrote new music for the ancient Hebrew poems that are cries for help, howls of frustration and shouts of joy: “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” “How long, O Lord?” “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.”
“On a personal level, I’ve found a lot of comfort in certain psalms,” he said. “Life blows up on people, all kinds of people.”
Walker knows about life blowing up.
He played saxophone for 24 years beginning when he was 10, a child in Minneapolis, and began gigging in his teens. From 2003 to 2004, he owned the Brilliant Corners jazz club in St. Paul, which jazz magazine DownBeat dubbed one of the top 100 jazz clubs worldwide. The Wynton Marsalis Quintet performed there one memorable winter night. Itzhak Perlman sat in after an Ordway concert.
In 2004, Walker founded Jazz Is NOW, an educational nonprofit, composers’ forum and jazz orchestra. That was also the year he stopped playing sax.
“When I would play, my jaw would go slack, and my left hand would misfire. I would send a signal for the fourth finger to go, and it wouldn’t, or another finger would go.” Bell’s palsy and focal dystonia were suggested. Maybe multiple sclerosis. Or maybe, some doctors said, he was making it up. Walker played his instrument for the last time at the Nomad, then sold everything, including his mouthpieces.
He switched to piano, which he had never studied.
“I didn’t know scale fingering; I couldn’t read bass clef. I could barely play ‘Come to Jesus’ in whole notes. It was so horrible to go from being a fairly high-level player to being an absolute beginner that I started composing a lot. I still wanted some connection with higher-level music.”
Over the next several years, while he taught himself to play piano and learned from masters including Frank Kimbrough, David Berkman and Benny Golson, his symptoms accumulated and became more debilitating. Joint pain. Tinnitus. Jaw pain. Stuttering. Cognitive issues, including concentration problems while performing.
“Sometimes I’d be OK, and sometimes a whole set of music would be a nightmare. I couldn’t predict. It’s hard to describe. It’s like I just … wander off. Your whole life is in that moment of playing, and you go away. You’re confused by sounds. The piano doesn’t feel right. You feel crazy.” Walker blamed himself. “I ended up thinking I just wasn’t a very good musician. That I didn’t deserve to be on stage, and I really shouldn’t be playing.”
A hope for treatment
Finally, late last month, an answer: Walker was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that stumps many medical professionals because its symptoms are so numerous and complex. He plans to seek treatment from a specialist in Montana.
“It feels good to think about getting in the car and heading west,” he said.
But first, there’s the concert at Bethel, and his music, set to Psalms 3, 6, 13, 22, 126, 130 and 131.
“I wanted as much universality of human emotion as I could deal with, in its raw human hurt and longing,” Walker explained. “That was how I chose each psalm. And I decided not to abridge the text. Jazz musicians work in repeating forms, and I wanted a way out of those. I figured if I don’t move the text around, the music has to move around. It freed me from having to be a bebop player.”
He’ll be playing with longtime friends Jeff Brueske on bass and Tim Zhorne on drums; they’ve made music together off and on for 20 years. Saxophonist Brandon Wozniak will join them, and vocalist Jason Harms, who delivers the sometimes challenging text without artifice, in a clear, strong voice. They’ll be backed by a 15-voice choir.
“I want people to be thrilled,” Walker said. “I want it to be a hair-raising experience, and an arc of hope. The songs are very stormy, then they start to settle out. The last one, Psalm 131, is as close to a personal statement as I would make.”
That psalm includes the words “My heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me.”