Jazz Vespers celebrates 25 years of salvation through music

Jazz Vespers • A special retrospective will celebrate the series' history.
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The Rev. Tom Goldsmith added Jazz Vespers to the Sunday lineup at First Unitarian Church in 1989, in response to rapidly growing attendance at the Salt Lake City church's regular services.

It didn't pan out quite as Goldsmith expected. His congregation was lukewarm to the format, which he'd stumbled upon via "a minuscule blurb in the Village Voice" during a visit to New York City a decade earlier. But Jazz Vespers took on a life of its own. It has transformed from one of Salt Lake City's best-kept secrets to a local institution, with a "dancing room only" crowd of loyal adherents (about 10 percent of them Unitarian, by Goldsmith's reckoning).

Jazz Vespers celebrates its 25th anniversary next Sunday with a special retrospective. It will be in a different venue — the Jeanné Wagner Theatre in downtown's Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center — but admission will remain the same as always: free of charge.

Former music directors Vince Frates, Steve Keen and Keven Johansen will return, as will vocalist Kelly Eisenhour and other former series regulars. The evening's final segment will spotlight the current music directors, saxophonist David Halliday and pianist Courtney Smith, along with percussionist Steve Lyman and bassist Denson Angulo; those four musicians have been Jazz Vespers' house band since 2008. There also will be a blues segment, along with a finale that Goldsmith declined to spoil; longtime KUER jazz host Steve Williams, a staunch supporter of Jazz Vespers, will be the master of ceremonies.

"It will be an opportunity for those who have really come to join the Jazz Vespers community in the last five, 10, 15 years or so to see and hear its origins," Goldsmith said.

Frates led Jazz Vespers from its inception until 2002, when he relocated to Portland, Ore. He has returned to town occasionally for recording projects, but never during the end-of-year Jazz Vespers season. In a phone interview, he said he has attended Jazz Vespers services in other cities and found that "the level of quality of the current Salt Lake band is as high as anywhere." He has kept tabs on the series in part through the YouTube videos posted by videographer Lee Shuster, and said he's impressed with its continued growth.

In an interview in Goldsmith's office at First Unitarian, Smith and Halliday explained their artistic philosophy. Rather than bringing in a series of guest performers, they explore the music of a different artist each week — a dizzyingly diverse assortment that has included Vince Guaraldi, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Carole King, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin. The most recent Jazz Vespers season closed with a performance featuring a classical string quartet, which integrated seamlessly with its jazz counterpart.

The music directors meet with engineer Karl Lies each summer to plan the seven-week season, which always ends on the Sunday before Christmas with an evening of "Christmas Kool." Halliday and Smith hash out the repertoire for each program, mostly via email, then get to work on arrangements. There's one rehearsal, from 4 to 6 p.m. on the day of the service.

"I like to say it's fresh," Goldsmith said.

"There are two sources of musical appeal," Halliday said of his and Smith's strategy. Some listeners will turn up because they're fans of the original performers and want to hear a new spin on the familiar tunes; others are simply fans of the Jazz Vespers Quartet.

"They're the best jazz musicians in Utah," said Lawrence White, who travels from Layton to hear Jazz Vespers with his wife, Pamela.

Williams concurred. "You don't have to be an expert in music to recognize what a high level they're playing at," he said. "I hold all four of them in super-high regard for their musicality."

Smith said he relishes the challenge of reinterpreting well-known music.

"The music is part of people's consciousness," he said. "The audience expects us to do something that hasn't been done [with it]."

There's an element of evangelism, too: "People might not know jazz, but they know James Brown or Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson. And they come away loving jazz," Smith said.

The musicians have "free rein within a structure — otherwise, it wouldn't be a service," Goldsmith explained. Loosely modeled on the Catholic prayer service from which it takes its name, the hourlong program alternates a half-dozen musical numbers with commentary and readings by Goldsmith. In place of a traditional sermon, the minister offers "The Other Side of the Wasatch," his gently humorous take on the week's news.

"We've always wanted it to be a spiritual and intellectual exercise," Goldsmith said. "The overall experience is spiritually rich."

Smith and Halliday said the other ingredient in Jazz Vespers' success is the church itself, which Halliday called "one of the best jazz venues in the country."

"The sound is great, the audience is supremely appreciative and the venue gives us the luxury of silence when we perform," the saxophonist said, noting that usually isn't the case in a nightclub.

"The crowds were getting so big we talked about changing the venue, but the connection between the instruments and the audience, that's what makes it," Smith added.

"It's my weekly salvation," said Julie Deherrera of Salt Lake City, who has been attending for five years. "The musicians are incredible, so talented. I yearn for that every week."

creese@sltrib.com —

25 years of music

First Unitarian Church's Jazz Vespers series celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special retrospective.

When • Sunday, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Admission • Free; donations accepted