Tony Cummings spoke to veteran songwriter and documentary film maker Steve Bassett about the multi-artist NINE BEATS COLLECTIVE
Several members of the Cross Rhythms reviews team are already convinced that the best album of 2017 is 'Nine Beats To The Bar' by an eclectic pool of musicians from three continents who have come together under the name Nine Beats Collective. What brought such an impressive collaboration of musicians together is a desire to explore in music and poetry those extraordinary "Blessed are. . ." sayings uttered by the Lord Jesus in his Sermon On The Mount known by believers as The Beatitudes. Released on CD and in a beautiful vinyl version 'Nine Beats To The Bar' has been captivating the attention of discerning music lovers everywhere.
When released by Plankton Record on 16th June the collective - which included Caleb Quaye (the guitarist who has worked with Paul McCartney and Elton John); the MOBO Award-winning producer and multi-instrumentalist Tony Bean; the African artist Ambassada, who is actually a UN Ambassador for children; the Norwegian singer/songwriter Mikael R Andreasen who under the name Kloster has won in his homeland an Album Of The Year award; former AC/DC tech crew member Barry Taylor (whose "Wild World" track from 'Nine Beats' is currently being played on Cross Rhythms radio); Aaron Niequist, a worship leader at both Mars Hill Church and Willow Creek Church; Fatai, an Australian singer/songwriter; Martin Trotman, a musical director and producer who has worked with such diverse artists as Jackie Graham, Nile Rodgers and Soweto Kinch; and the Rev Vince Anderson, whose four albums of "dirty gospel" have gained him a myriad of supporters. But it is Steve Bassett, a writer, creative director and documentary film maker whose credits have taken in chart singles, TV (Top Of The Pops, Channel 4's Big Breakfast), who is the visionary behind the Nine Beats Collective.
Steve has a long history of Christian music involvement. By the late '70s he was a member with his wife Sue Reeves-Bassett of the two men, two women group New Beginnings whose tuneful pop songs caught the attention of British churchgoers and whose albums for Kingsway (1981's 'Change Of Heart' and 1982's 'Masks') and Word (1984's 'New Beginnings') kept them touring across the UK and beyond. The last recording New Beginnings did wasn't under their name of on their record. Steve and Sue together with Bernie Sharon contributed "additional vocals" to the Heartbeat 1986 album 'Voice To The Nation'.
Heartbeat had emerged as a major force in British music ministry circles and under the guidance of Ray and Nancy Goudie were bringing a prophetic element into their music plus by the time they recorded 'The Winner' album a much sharper pop music sensibility had developed. By the time they recorded the album in 1988 both Steve (bass) and Sue (vocals) were members of Heartbeat and with Sue Rinaldi singing lead scored a pop chart hit with the single "Tears From Heaven" (written by Rinaldi, Goudie, Morgan, Bankhead and Bassett). Steve and Sue stayed with Heartbeat for their worship projects 'Songs For A New Generation' (1989) and 'I Will Speak Out' (1990).
When Heartbeat stopped in '91 Steve and Sue teamed up with singer Colin Pye (who once fronted the fondly remembered band Zipcodes) to form Red Sun. That band's edgy music and challenging lyrical themes - such as child slavery and AIDS displayed on their two cassette releases, 1994's album 'Rising' and 1996's EP 'Big Blue Sky', were probably a bit too hard hitting for the Christian bookshops. I picked up Steven's story from that point.
Steve said, "After Heartbeat finished I wrote some songs with Sue Rinaldi on her first three albums. Then I joined up with Christmas Cracker, Steve Chalke's youth ministry which at the time was groundbreaking. There was a small team of us and I became the press officer for Christmas Cracker and I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it. That got me into making videos and documentaries. I'd made well over a hundred videos and documentaries with Lifewords so I've now travelled 34 plus countries around the world, filming anything from mission work to social issues to HIV to preventable blindness. . .
"I film some of them on my own; I travel alone and film sometimes, in many countries - Ruanda, Uganda, all over the world. That's been marvellous. Then I hooked up with the Bible Society for a while as a creative consultant and we did some interesting projects. Things like for the millennium issue of Vogue we did a six page photo shoot on The Prodigal. That was six pages in Vogue magazine which was a phenomenal project. In fact Tom Wright still says it was one of the three highlights for him of the decade of evangelism. Then I ended up with Lifewords as a sort of creative freelance. Eventually I ended up thinking, do you know what, this is silly; I might as well be full time. Lifewords used to be known as Scripture Gift Mission, which is one of these venerable old Victorian propagation of the Gospel societies, bit like the Bible Society and all those. And they are basically about giving people ways into the Bible. Sadly, the Bible has become, particularly among the emerging generation, something that people try and avoid and can't talk about. For them it's a toxic thing."
Two and a half years ago Steve had something close to an epiphany concerning the Beatitudes. "I just had an idea that came to me - you know how ideas come almost fully formed - to explore the Beatitudes. Now obviously, I'm not the first person in human history to think the Beatitudes might have something relevant to say to us today. Anyway, this came quite forcefully. I think for those of us of a certain vintage, if you can remember the late '90s where there seemed, to me at least in the creative things I was involved in at the time, to be almost like a strand that ran through of the Prodigal. It was coming through in a lot of Christian art and music and even in mainstream culture.
"I began to think what is the equivalent of that for the start of the 21st century? And the Beatitudes just dropped into my being one day. So I thought I'm going to follow the white rabbit and see where it goes. All I knew at the start was it had to do with exploring the Beatitudes and it had to have music; it had to be a concept album. In my head I was a little bit like, ok, this needs to be a bit like that period of history in the '70s with the concept albums where the art work was as much a part of the experience as the actual vinyl. So then it was like, ok, this has to be vinyl as well, it has to be a gatefold cover, I just knew that. So I thought this needs some SERIOUS music here, how are we going to do it?"
Steve continued, "I began thinking how can we communicate this message that the Beatitudes seem to have, of inclusion and all the nuances that are there, to this generation? I began to test out my thoughts with theologians, creatives, artists, musicians, provocateurs, troubadours, poets - anybody I could talk to who would listen to me. I began to collect a few people in the States, an artist I knew in Uganda, another in Denmark and some in the UK who connected with what I was feeling about the Beatitudes. I travelled almost continually for about 18 months all over the place. Lifewords is a very small organisation yet they discussed it at some length with the board. Wonderfully they said ok, this is important; we want to make this the focus of our "young adult" work for the next three years. So that was a fantastic endorsement of the idea. We have had some other funding since but Lifewords' support has been great. We are still seeking funding. The many people that we've been working with have been wonderful and Nine Beats has grown in a real spirit of collaboration.
"I met a whole lot of people - they included people who are brilliant musicians, front edge thinking cultural observers and theologians and they expanded on the idea. I'm very simple; I had this idea about music and this art form and then [suddenly] there was so much more to it. One of the musicians we worked with, a guy called Reverend Vince Anderson who's based in Brooklyn, New York, he describes this project as being like a Blue Note album (the legendary jazz record label) with 'Nine Beats' kind of exploring what's between A and B flat. What's between these Nine Beats as we've called them, these nine sayings of Jesus? I know some people say there are eight. But for us it's nine and we can explain that as we go through.
"The songs don't go through and try and dictate like here's a song about 'Blessed are the meek.' Yes, there are some things like that. But it's much more human as well. It's not just trying to inflict a programme on somebody. Eventually we decided to meet all the potential contributors in person. I'd met them all individually of course and stayed on their couches and had conversations. But we needed to get together and explore the project more. We found a retreat centre in California which was beautiful; it was where they filmed The Flying Nun in the '60s. We got together a good number of the collective and began writing songs. A few of the songs we began there made it onto the final album, including Vince's song '#blessed'. We would work separately then come together. By the end of those three days, to a man and woman, we all said it had been phenomenal.
"It was going to be a track per artist and then it got much bigger than that so we said ok, we've got something here that is actually a concept, a soundscape. It then became a 26-track double album which is great, it gave it room to breathe and takes people on a journey which is framed or mapped out with these ancient waymarks of pilgrimage. It starts off with Alienation and goes on to Purgation, Union. There are those four waymarks that Eric [Wilson] portrays and that gave us the framework for the album that we've kind of mapped out with the Beatitudes on top of that so you get a flow. It's an amazing audio experience that works particularly well when you play the vinyl because you stop and turn it over after each section. But of course it works on CD and downloads as well."
Of the numerous dazzling musical contributions on 'Nine Beats' witnessed by Steve one sticks particularly in his mind. Said Steve, "Caleb Quaye who is one of the world's most revered guitarists of the '60s and '70s. He was right at the start of the Elton John story so in the Elton John band for years, Dusty Springfield, Hall And Oates - he's played with many top people. He is now a Pentecostal pastor and has been for 30 years. But he is still a phenomenal guitarist. For him to agree to work with us was just incredible. I wrote a song with Eric called '9/8', it's kind of a rap song, but Caleb plays this wild guitar. I've got the video of it where we're in the studio in LA and Caleb's letting rip on the guitar and Eric, Barry, myself, Tony Bean, the producer, and the engineer kept pressing repeat and Caleb carried on playing. We had 15 minutes of this wild guitar from Caleb. You know when you're in the presence of something great. When he stopped playing there was a moment of silence and then everyone applauded and laughed. It was a release of tension because we knew we'd been at the feet of an absolute master of his craft.
"I was really nervous when I sent him the final mix because Caleb was my boyhood hero. He came back and was like 'I love this' and that for me was like, I can die now! But there are a whole lot of artists like Caleb who have been really instrumental in a lot of very great musical albums that we all know and we've been able to harness that. It blows my mind; I can't believe we've done it. So I'm excited from that point of view. Anyone who reads this interview, you may not have heard of many of the artists. But you need to hear them. You need to find out who they are because they are artists and songwriters at the top of their game."
I asked Steve whether with the release of the album 'Nine Beats To The Bar' the Nine Beats vision had reached its peak. He responded emphatically, "No! I think we're just starting. Mark Scandrette, who's a kind of spiritual formation coach from San Francisco, has crafted a thing called the Ninefold Path which takes the form of a kind of notebook but it's kind of an adventure and exploration of the Beatitudes that people can do together. I hesitate to use words like curriculum or resource 'cos that kind of implies that it's a plug and play thing. It's not that. It's much more organic than that. But there'll be an opportunity to do that online or as a group with the booklet.
"I think I the Ninefold Path strand of the project is going to get a big take up. In churches and among Christian communities people are interested in exploring those gaps. If you just want it to tell you what you already think you know, and it will be like a fridge magnet blessing then it is not for you. But if you want to dig in to the truths of the Beatitudes then it really could be something very special and you and your whole church could benefit from exploring it. So I think there's a big take up in Europe and in the States potentially. I also think the music side has got a long way to go. We're going to work through the autumn on distribution both here and in the States. We've had some fantastic reviews; Indie Magazine gave us a maximum star review and used words like 'beautiful', 'compelling', 'hypnotic'."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.