As a jazz duo, Peter Woods (saxophonist) and James McGowan (pianist) used to play gigs all over Ottawa, oftentimes providing “classic jazz on a Saturday night.” The next morning, they could both be found in their respective churches: Woods as the minister for MacKay United Church, with McGowan (who is also a professor in the music department at Carleton University) the director of music for Trinity United Church, both in the nation’s capital.

While it was great to play jazz in front of a live audience, “we were always looking for that spiritual connection around the music,” said Woods. “At any venue, spirituality is always present. For years, we said to ourselves: ‘What if we could make our performances more overtly connected to faith communities and spiritual growth?’”

Then last year at the Annual Meeting of Montreal & Ottawa Conference, Woods heard about Embracing the Spirit, an initiative which funds and supports new forms of ministry within the United Church. He and McGowan had always wanted to broaden their group into an ensemble that could tap into spiritual energy and move seamlessly from worship to nightclub; now they saw their chance.

After forming the Evensong Ensemble, they were invited to play at the launch of Embracing the Spirit launch last summer in Paris, Ontario. The Ensemble, then a quartet, was given $500 in seed money. Perhaps more importantly, Embracing the Spirit connected the group’s members to people who could help it with the business side of the music industry.

A $5,000 innovation grant from Embracing the Spirit further boosted the band, allowing it to plan recordings and to pay other costs associated with the music industry.

The Evensong Ensemble finds spiritual harmony in a spiritual but not religious world.
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Evensong Ensemble

Now a quintet, Woods says the Evensong Ensemble bridges the gap between the uplifting power found in the contemporary jazz-pop concert experience with the progressive theology of the United Church.

The ensemble’s spiritually charged message is getting noticed. Its members recently played at fundraiser for the Multifaith Housing Initiative, a charity focused on providing safe and affordable housing in Ottawa. This summer, the group is booked for the nationally renowned Stewart Park Festival in Perth, Ontario.

“We have some of the best musicians in Ottawa playing in that band,” says Woods. Leah Cogan, lead vocalist, was a critical addition to the building of the band. “She’s a force,” says Woods, noting that Cogan, who is also an actress, won the national CBC competition Triple Sensation in 2009.

The group has a diverse repertoire, including such staples as "Our Love is Here to Stay" by George Gershwin, "God Bless the Child" by Billie Holiday, and "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. Woods says they also love playing music United Church members would be familiar with, such as "Be Thou My Vision" and "Open My Heart," but re-shaped by McGowan’s jazz harmonies.

“We love playing material from More Voices,” he said. “'Over My Head, Deep in our Hearts,' and 'Draw the Circle Wide' are all great starting points for playing jazz. Meanwhile, we really love to play spiritually sensitive music from all genres: 'Imagine,' 'Nature Boy,' 'Wayfaring Stranger': it all works.”

This blend of contemporary and updated traditional music allows the ensemble to connect to a diverse audience, including those with little or no religious backgrounds.

“We live and work and perform in the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) world,” says Woods. “That’s the world we are all living in. People have never stopped seeking spiritual nourishment in a musical setting, but the categories and frameworks are changing so fast.”

When the ensemble plays at a church event, such as an Ottawa presbytery meeting, Woods says they receive “appreciative comments from our colleagues, who say we bring a new level of energy to the event. And, funnily, we have the same conversations when we play at a club. Classic material with new energy: that’s our happy place. We’re very aware that the music is a vessel, and is one part of a message about love and acceptance in the world.”

Developing audiences outside the church is a key goal of the ensemble. “We do not want to be just more incarnation of innovation within the church,” Wood says. “This Ensemble was born in the church, but we want to push boundaries. We want to be part of the conversation in the SBNR world.”

He says support from Embracing the Spirit will help Evensong connect with musicians across the country who are engaged by this musical/spiritual conversation/experience, especially as the United Church seeks to be a credible presence in the SBNR world.

“As we reflect on what we are doing, we simply hope to inspire ourselves, our audiences and our musical colleagues. With social media platforms, live shows and faith-based networks, who knows where this could lead. He adds, “every musician worth their weight is tapped into a deep spiritual vein of some sort.”

For more information about the Evensong Ensemble, contact Woods at pete [at] petewoods.ca.

—Paul Russell is Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Moderator and General Secretary.

New and diverse approaches to ministry are constantly cropping up across The United Church of Canada, and Embracing the Spirit wants to hear about them. If you are involved with a group that has found an innovative way to approach church, let us know, by filling in the Tell Us Your Story form, found at the bottom of the Spur Innovation page.