Jazzing up an old hymn
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Jazzing up an old hymn

So odd. I'd not heard anything like it for decades. But there it was, as it unmistakably left my lips and hung in the air. A whistle. Yes, a whistle, complete with shrilly vibrato, as though it had emerged from one of those content old men who can knock out any melody at the drop of a hat.

How on Earth did it happen?

Jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson.                              Bernard             From: John Shand [mailto:jshand@bigpond.net.au]    Sent: Friday, 18 April 2008 5:17 PM  To: Bernard  Zuel  Subject: Fw: ANDREW ROBSON PIC 2          Am chasing one of him playing. Meanwhile, another option...   Pic credit to Regis Lansac.

Jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson. Bernard From: John Shand [mailto:jshand@bigpond.net.au] Sent: Friday, 18 April 2008 5:17 PM To: Bernard Zuel Subject: Fw: ANDREW ROBSON PIC 2 Am chasing one of him playing. Meanwhile, another option... Pic credit to Regis Lansac.

It was last Sunday morning. I was sitting at the dining-room table, beside me a good coffee half drunk, in front the laptop whirring away as I did something easy on the screen. Playing on the stereo in the background was a CD I hadn't listened to for years. Bearing the Bell: the Hymns of Thomas Tallis by Sydney-based jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson.

Let me say that I'm not fond of jazz. I don't even like the look of the word (it looks almost obscene). And I don't like a thing about the saxophone - Kenny G has a lot to answer for. But I bought Bearing the Bell after reading a review of it in the newspaper. What originally intrigued me was the way Robson so irresistibly abstracts his selection of 16th-century ''tunes'', which are the basis for many Christian hymns. It's delicious music.

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These days I don't have a religious breath in my chest, but the majority of my first 18 years was spent at an all-boys Anglican school on Sydney's North Shore, one where weekly attendance at chapel was compulsory and taken very seriously by most students. If there was one thing I loved about chapel it was singing the hymns, especially the ones where Tallis was the source.

The hymns were unfathomably beautiful. The harmonies. The passing notes. The big, glorious, skin-tightening finishes. Now I think about it, what a strange act it was to bellow out lines such as ''When in the slippery paths of youth/with heedless steps I ran/thine arm unseen conveyed me safe/and led me up to man'' (from When All Thy Mercies, O My God).

Who knows what these words really mean.

All I know is that listening to Robson's imaginative take on Tallis last Sunday morning made me whistle. The whistle was brief, just half-a-dozen notes, but in that moment I felt happier than I have in decades. As if I were nothing more than a teenager again and walking the cool corridors of school.

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