By Dave Herrera
By Jesse Livingston
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Roger James first made a name for himself in local music circles as a jazz pianist. Last year he released Voyages, a collection of tasteful keyboard-laden originals that wouldn't seem out of place next to recordings by Yanni and other artists who straddle the line between jazz and new-age music. These days, however, there's a different kind of sound emanating from James's Denver studio, one resulting from the pianist's recent exploration of a musical style that falls far outside the mainstream. On his self-released Music of the Prophets, he delves headlong into an obscure academic art form derived from a belief that the Masoretic Hebrew Bible, the source of the Old Testament, is actually a piece of music.
"Listen to that," James says, his hands floating across the piano while he plays a selection from Music, producing a classical-sounding creation that rises and falls dramatically. "That's good songwriting. It's the music of God."
Indeed, if the works James has committed to his Music of the Prophets CD are derived from the ancient text, some people may soon have reason to regard the Creator as one heck of a composer. The selections are rich with complex chord voicings and heart-grabbing minor-chord progressions. On Music, James builds on the work of Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, a French composer and music theorist who first determined that the symbols above and below the lines of copy in the Masoretic text were a complex series of musical symbols, not simple melody notations and punctuation marks, as most scholars now believe. For the past two years, James has built on Haik-Vantoura's discoveries by adding harmonies to the original ancient melodies, recording them with modern instrumentation and translating the lyrics to English.
"I've made this music available to English-speaking non-scholars," he says. "No one's ever done this before."
James, a Christian, found this somewhat mysterious musical world in 1999, when he was learning Hebrew. He came across the discoveries of Haik-Vantoura, who had published her findings in 1976 in the book La Musique de la Bible Revélée; later that year, Haik-Vantoura released a recording of the same name on the Harmonia Mundi label and went on to supervise several more recordings of Masoretic-inspired scores. Her music appealed to James's musical and religious sensibilities, and his elaborations on her findings have since become something of an obsession.
In addition to creating an accessible, Living Bible-type version of Haik-Vantoura's work, James has made a few discoveries of his own. He's documented these findings in a manual titled Music, Spirit and the Keys to Prophecy, which he's releasing in conjunction with Music of the Prophets. James's revelations include his belief that music is the "fingerprint" of God and a tool for interpreting the meaning of the Bible. He also delves into more edgy topics, such as his theory that the mechanics of music are a key to understanding the prophecies of the Apocalypse. James admits that these topics may have people thinking he's one more religious nut worthy of a good cracking. Adding to that sense is the book's "Notice to truth censors," in which James states that he has taken steps to make sure his work gets published "should any significant harm befall the author" or in the event that he is "significantly hindered from the publication" of his work.
"That might be overkill," James says of his concerns, "but some of the things I'm touching on in the book might be touchy to some powerful groups."
James counts the entertainment industry and organized religious groups among those who might be threatened by his revelations. But after one listen, it's hard to imagine how anyone could regard his project as a threat. Music of the Prophets opens with "The Creation," in which James recites an English version of the Creation story to a musical backdrop. The piece has a neo-classical feel and features church-friendly piano parts that echo the drama of the Bible text. "The Benediction" is a stirring, slowly moving piece that features luxurious Hebrew singing (by Peter J. Tuff, a Colorado Springs singer) and James's reading of the Lord's Prayer. "The Sh'ma" opens with a flourish from a shofar, an ancient trumpet made from a ram's horn, that builds to an a cappella chorus of Hebrew singers and one more moving passage from a lone Hebrew vocalist. "Isaiah 6" features James reading that text backed by his own flute track, while "Psalm 23" is a satiny lullaby with a contemporary feel, hushed Hebrew verses and delicately played piano parts.
Like many of the compositions on the CD, "Psalm" loses some of its emotional impact during James's bone-dry readings of the ancient Hebrew translations. While James admits that his music might suffer a bit in translation, he says he's not concerned with instant gratification, for himself or his listeners.
"I don't expect to go out and rock the world," he says. "This is more contemplative music. It's not pop music designed for our three-minute culture." The narrations are a tradeoff he has to make, he says, in order to get the music to Hebrew-impaired masses. And if people have problems with his compositions, he can't help that. "Somebody told me 'The Creation' was too long," he says. "I said, 'Well, you can't blame me for that -- it was seven days long. It's not my problem. If you don't like it, blame it on God.'" James also refuses to stray from the original melodies of his material or bend them to suit modern-day attention spans. "If I did that, then I might as well be doing Christian contemporary music. That would be heresy."
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