Last December my wife and I went with some friends to the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul for the “holiday show” of a local contemporary jazz trio called The New Standards.
As their name implies, they do mostly covers of other bands, and the show included a great variety in styles and genres of music including some Christmas carols.
While listening to their version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” a deep, brooding, at times even sultry rendition of this classic, it occurred to me that, in a very real sense, sermons might be compared to a cover of a classic song. The best covers, of course, aren’t mere appropriations of great songs. Instead, they are interpretations, bringing a zest and vitality to the piece so that it speaks in a new way to a new people and time. Hence the brilliance of this group’s name — by rendering an old song in a fresh way, they make a standard ballad new.
Similarly, preachers interpret texts so that these old standards — some well known, some less so — can offer a compelling word for today’s hearers. The key to doing this well, as with offering a great cover, is to pick up on oft overlooked details that speak to the mood and questions of the day. By giving voice to the “minor key” of a favorite text, or by jazzing up an overlooked piece of the larger collection, we can hear a biblical passage say something unexpected and therefore precious.
Certainly comparing a sermon to a good cover doesn’t say everything we might want about preaching. But it does offer an interesting image to play with for a season or two.
Christmas covers are, of course, nearly ubiquitous at this time of year. Almost any celebrity that sings has done a Christmas album. Perhaps not surprising then, the quality of these efforts is uneven (again, not unlike sermons!). So, if you’re looking for musical inspiration along these lines, or just want to listen to some great Christmas music, you have to choose carefully. If you’re interested, you can find The New Standards holiday album, Candy Cane, on iTunes. (For those close to the Twin Cities, you can catch them live, again at the Fitzgerald Theater, on December 6. More information is available at www.thenewstandards.com).
Some of my other favorite Christmas covers include Shawn Colvin’s rendition of “In the Bleak Midwinter” (Lullabies and Holiday Songs), Patti Smith’s haunting “We Three Kings” (on A Very Special Christmas, vol. 3), and anything off The Chieftains’ The Bells of Dublin. On those last two albums there are a couple of “contemporary carols” offering a new twist on the familiar story: Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus” (Bells) and Dave Matthew’s “Christmas Song” (VSC – 3) are both worth a listen. Enjoy!