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Extreme power of music
on 28 February 2003
Rarely, very rarely, one comes across a piece of music so moving, so powerful, that it causes a slight but permanent shift in the way you look at life. The last time it happened to me was listening to a performance of Duruflé's Requiem in the chapel of St John's College, Cambridge, on Remembrance Sunday. Years passed without anything touching the heart to quite such an extent - until my wife played me "Jesus' Blood". She had heard it on her car radio and had to pull over for a few minutes to recover.
It penetrates the soul like a hammer drill. Even in isolation the old tramp's voice, its frailty bolstered by his simple faith, is enough to snap the heartstrings. Add the wonderfully sympathetic Gavin Bryars orchestration, sometimes extremely simple, other times rich and lush, and you have a the most unlikely blend of vocal line and harmonic backing that fixes you in the strangest way. It is a musical and lyrical match with a dimension that you can see and feel, yet is impossible to describe in words alone. The use of suspensions and surprise cadences over the tramp's humble hymn tune are certainly part of the magic. It is so profoundly involving that you soon give up trying to understand what's going on and just let the music take you to places you've never been before.
Tom Waits' gravelly vocal contribution has been criticised as an intrusion, but I don't find it so. Since the piece is already so full of visual imagery, I quickly found myself imagining him as the Victorian gravedigger come to take the old tramp away, and then he made sense.
Amazon's US-based site contains many more reviews than there are here, nearly all wildly enthusiastic about the piece but with a few who seem to loathe it. How anyone could find "Jesus blood" anything but brilliantly imaginative and intensely moving beats me. But that's human life. And human life is what this piece is all about.