CATCHING UP with the nimble Grammy Award-nominated Damien Sneed, Artistic Director and Conductor for Chorale Le Chateau, is no small feat. Yet when he strides in the room and his smiling eyes land on you, it is clear he is with you, squarely in the moment. For our interview, Damien had asked me, without explanation, to meet him at an address in Astoria, Queens. We could have very well met at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), the site of our rehearsals for the acclaimed tour of Wynton Marsalis’s Abyssinian Mass, where Damien is Artistic Consultant, and where I saw him just last week give a blisteringly good performance of music from his new album, Broken to Minister, which also draws upon his gifts with gospel, classical and jazz idioms. Damien has an impressive array of JALC projects in progress, including his upcoming recital, Spiritual Sketches, with international operatic star, tenor Lawrence Brownlee. Nonetheless, that day we weren’t meant to meet at the House of Swing.
He was several steps ahead of me — literally, figuratively, thankfully. The mystery location was the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, where we entered an auditorium of 150 gifted high school singers and their teachers. After our warm hellos, Damien told me that while scheduling the interview, he remembered that I have a desire to perform Duke Ellington’s Concerts of Sacred Music, and he had intentionally scheduled us there so I could observe the rehearsal of this work. Hearing this choir of excited teens sing through the music was an inspired upgrade from the alternative — my routine score study for one.
That encounter imparts so much of what I learned about Damien on tour. He has a depth and vision for his music, and a genuine caring for the musicians in his life, that belies his relative youth and the limits of a 24-hour day. Describing their collaboration on Spiritual Sketches, Lawrence Brownlee told me, “Damien’s knowledge of music spans so many genres, and he has such an ability to say something distinctive, using jazz, classical and gospel in conversation with each other.” His primary inspiration is his faith, instilled by both parents who shared with him their own prodigious musical talents as church musicians. As Damien retells his life’s story, I can easily trace a thread from those diverse artists he cites as major influences to his present distinctive musical identity: Damien’s mentor since adolescence, Wynton Marsalis; Stevie Wonder; legendary opera singer, Jessye Norman; and importantly, gospel luminaries such as Twinkie Clark, Vickie Winans, and Karen Clark Sheard, among other greats.
Damien is a keen listener, and quite possibly the most compassionate conductor for whom I have worked. He maintains a constant, energized sense of purpose, and it’s his way to generously infuse a moment with much more than is expected. As the choir faced him to sing, we could delight in his assured spontaneity, musical confidence and commitment to the Mass’s central message, “Everyone has a place in the house of God.”
From right to left, members of the Abyssinian Mass project: Candice Hoyes (Author, Singer); Walter Blanding (Tenor and Soprano Saxophone, Clarinet); Vincent Gardner (Trombone); Damien Sneed (Conductor); Belinda Munro (Singer); Carlos Henriquez (Bass); Lauren Michelle (Singer); Montavius Wells (Singer) in Charlotte, NC.
The London premiere of Abyssinian Mass at the Barbican marked Damien’s international conducting debut, at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Our sprawling Abyssinian Mass tour was a radical departure for JALC and for Damien’s Chorale Le Chateau (a choir he founded and hand-selected). Wynton’s complete trust in both Damien’s artistic and business leadership is implicit in this beautifully planned leap of faith. He was, after all, conducting the notable gentleman playing 4th Trumpet: his longtime mentor, and the composer of this innovative, imposing work.
I interviewed Damien Sneed for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and asked him to describe the international significance of Marsalis’ Abyssinian Mass, as well as the impact of these performances on his artistry.