Prepare an open mind as I get my technology ready. [Prepare the wireless speaker and pull up the song]. I’m about to present H. Jon Benjamin playing on his first Jazz album entitled “I Should Have…” As you listen, try to follow the piano player.
(Play “Play Piano Pt. 4 (Trill Baby Trill)” by H. Jon Benjamin from the 1:00 to the 1:30 minute mark)
Did you hear it?
The saxophonist is clearly very talented, the drummer is great, the bassist has it going on...but the pianist? Did the pianist sound off to you? Or did it sound like regular, wonky Jazz music?
You might be someone who can identify that the pianist isn’t playing the “correct” notes in order to make a melody, nor does he seem to have mastered the art of following chord progressions. He’s trying to make a point, but something’s off.
Or you may be someone who listens and just hears the usual chaos that is jazz. Everything seems fine to you.
Well, the good news is this: according to Lent and Easter understanding, both are correct answers. Yes, the music is definitely jazz in all its usual chaos and, yes, that pianist isn’t a real pianist and is just making stuff up on the spot. Let me explain.
The pianist in this album isn’t a pianist by trade. Jon Benjamin is known for his work on Bob’s Burgers and Archer. He is a comedian, voice actor and not what most would call a musician, and, yet, he’s recently decided to create music. Benjamin released an experimental album last year with the help of premier jazz musicians that make him look really good. The experiment started with Benjamin contracting Scott Kreitzer on sax, David Finck on bass, and Jonathan Peretz on drums.
Benjamin contracted these hardworking, longsuffering musicians to record his album and yet he didn’t tell them that he doesn’t know how to play the piano. Benjamin just played the part and “soloed” when it came time to solo. He clanged and banged on the piano, with utter confidence despite having no real ability. Many would say that the music sounds pretty good, all things considered.
Benjamin said in an interview on NPR last year, “[The ‘real’ musicians] were very nice to do it, and I'm not sure they realized what they were doing until we got there. [None of those “real” musicians knew that Benjamin can’t play piano, they were just going to show up at the recording studio and play along.] And then [when they found out he couldn’t play] they were mad. But not mad enough to stop altogether. So they went through with it, and they were great.” He calls his work, “real untapped un-talent.”
How does this connect to Lent?
In Lent, we take time to see that sometimes we get the harmonious notes, but so often, we don’t. We’re like the “bad” piano player, banging on the piano, with dissonant chords and wrong notes and accidents all over. We fall short, we mess up, we sin, corporately and personally, we bang on the piano of life.
Do you see the good news in that story? The good news is that Benjamin can’t ruin a good band, no matter how bad a pianist he might be. That music sounds pretty good, despite his inabilities.
The good news is that, despite the world’s darkness and failings, despite human frailty and inability to do the right thing, there’s hope. Because God became human, became one of us, lived, died and rose again, we have been raised to live within the Godhead. We’ve not been left to our bad piano playing but God has shown up with the Trinitarian jazz band to turn around our messes and make beauty.
Christians believe that God-as-Love became flesh and dwelt among us. But Christians who follow Lent take time to recognize that the world, ourselves, and our societies are not nice places. In Lent we realize we’ve failed to be the utopia that God intended. As it says in John 1: “[Jesus, God Incarnate] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11). He lived and died as one of us, yet without sin, without failing -- but humans, being what we are, we found a way to be so offended by Jesus’ love, teachings, and habits, that we put him to death.
We were offended by Jesus’ good musicianship, our ears had been so used to dissonant chords and banging and revelry. But “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
That last part is important. That’s where the Jazz happens. Rev. Dr. Sam Wells would agree that, like the God, Jazz “isn’t about being original, clever or spontaneous…[Jazz] is about allowing yourself [ -- like the bad piano player -- ] to be obvious…[Jazz musicians] have to [play] the first thing that comes to mind, and part of that is being part of a [band]."
You don’t have to produce everything yourself. You just have to recognize [that the Spirit speaks in a team or, in this case, speaks through a band, not in an individual musician]”. Musicians have to trust each other to make good music. They have to give it all, even when it sounds bad at first.
We don’t have to produce perfection because God’s a really good jazz musician. Jesus still saves the world from death’s power. We don’t need to produce goodness or perfection on our own. We just have to recognize that God arrives to save us in a the person of Jesus, who, as part of the Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit) is in a unified band. The band of the Trinity has already incorporated all our sins, all of our horrendous piano-playing, and accounted for it. God took whatever we threw at him and turned it into something beautiful, just like those musicians on Benjamin’s album.
During Lent and Holy Week, we look carefully at the darkness. We pay attention to our role to play in the “bad music” in our world. We remember that Jesus took the worst of human nature. His neighbors and countrymen pummeled him with insults, accusations and put him on trial. Though he was innocent, we was condemned to death as a traitor to his country and a heretic in his religion (Phil 2:8). Humanity, though we met God in the flesh, in the form of a perfect person, we did not “ [believe] in the name of the only Son of God…[and] people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:20).
In the metaphor for tonight, we’re banging on the piano, unable to keep up with the song of God, the pulsing song of harmony that undergirds the universe. In Lent, we realize that dissonance, that discord, that inability to get it right.
We’re hitting wrong notes, but we don’t despair. Lent isn’t about despair, it’s about looking forward to what’s next.
The good news of Holy Week and Easter is that the God created us loved us from the beginning and loved us through the cross, through death, into resurrection and to the end. The Jazz of the Trinity has accounted for our banging on the piano, God takes our insults and our murderous impulses and loves us through it.
Paul wrote: “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” ( Romans 6:10-11). In other words, God creates, people fall short, but Jesus takes it and recreates life from death. And, since he was one of us, now we live to God, brought into the life-giving power of eternity. St. Athanasius said in the 4th century: “God became human so that humans might become God.”
Being raised with him, we’re being caught up in the Trinitarian Jazz that’s been playing for eternity. The music’s playing and our loving, life-giving, and liberating God wants your contribution -- and they’re gonna make it sound good.