London-based CANOPY MUSIC are much more than another independent Christian record label. They're a ministry committed to seeing jazz recognised as a valid vehicle for Christian ministry. Hughie Lawrence reports.
Recently a groundbreaking album 'Jazz In The 'Sanctuary: Spirit Of The Nation' helped L demonstrate the long running musical links between the soulful fervour of gospel music and the improvisational inventiveness of jazz. The album explored the stylistic breadth of jazz while giving a platform in an impressive range of artists from Britain's burgeoning gospel scene, with contributions from long-established acts like the Wood Green Gospel Choir and the Escoffrey Sisters, to new-to-CD artists like Carla Hayles and Hutchinson & Gayle. By placing call-and-response fervour and octave leaping divas in a dazzling environment of bebop and jazz funk, old time blues and biting acid jazz, Canopy Music have given birth to something fresh in the Christian music arena. Recently at the Cross Rhythms radio studios, I caught up with Mark Ingleby who, with Paul Gordon, is one of the founding directors of the company.
When did Canopy
Music start and what is its vision?
"The actual concept of Canopy Music began as a company in 1996. The ethos is about working alongside and about not competing. We have a term called The Canopy Campus where everybody's studying and learning together and that's the feel of how we work alongside other artists. Our focus is to work with grassroots artists and also to work alongside existing companies at the executive level and in doing that we're able to encourage this spirit of co-operation and collaboration. The gospel scene has suffered from a spirit of competition and division. I think especially in the light of the way we have all tended to follow the secular method of record deals and the way that locks artists up. That's really damaged the Christian music community."
But surely, being a record company, you're bound to be competitive.
"We're not out there to compete with Alliance, Word or Gloryhouse or with anybody else. We're there to assist and to raise up the whole body. I was touched when having finished the album in the last few months, one of the groups on the album, Jazz Mission, were doing an inaugural gig in quite a rough part of South East London where they'd found a venue with a view to maintaining a jazz gig and using that as a vehicle for ministry. They needed to record the gig and Lenford Quoshie, who's a songwriter and producer on the album, went to all the trouble to bring in his PA and recording equipment to help that group to record their .gig and do the PA for them. He had a London group and a group from Slough working together. Previous to 'Jazz In The Sanctuary1, both sets of musicians knew nothing about each other."
Tell me a bit about putting the album together.
"We made an effort to communicate with artists and promoters from all round the country to see what was going on in each area and to get people to get away from their old regional hurts, rivalries and misunderstandings. God really moved during the recording of the tracks and I would say miraculous things happened. We had younger, less experienced artists suddenly working on their track one day, as happened in the studio in London and Wayne Ellington came by and he happened to be in the studio doing some other work and he had time to actually come in and help the artist in question, Jermaine, who's a rapper, Wayne had time to come in and do his backing vocals for him."
Now that the album is out how do you intend to promote it?
"We're at the Chatsworth Park 2000 Festival on June 17th. They've invited us to have a slot with featured Canopy artists and in the spirit of Canopy Music we've been able to put together three of the lead vocalists off the album and five of the musicians including Ben Castle on saxophone, Carla Hayles, Wayne Ellington, Sharlene Hector and Lenford Quoshie. We've got what the outside world would call a super group but we know in the body of Christ there are no super groups. The only super group is the Holy Spirit."
Is jazz the only music in which Canopy Music intend to work?
"We are hoping in the future to develop into different genres of music. When we use the word jazz, we take it in its widest sense but I think the bottom line of how we approach all this is its originality.
The fact that we worked in a jazz way on this album was a tremendous stimulus to the producers and the writers and arrangers to come up with something different from what's been done before and the standard way the Americans do things. I'm proud to say that everybody I've spoken to right through this project has said, 'None of this material sounds like a copy of the Americans.' It's been really a British thing and there's been a tremendous spirit of creativity. The jazz side of it has stimulated everyone and I believe that, whether we're working in R&B or reggae that there will be a different flavour to these Canopy albums. We're pushing our artists to be original rather than to be photocopies.