He’s church-reared and classically-trained; young maestro Damien Sneed gets to marry the best of both worlds on “The Abyssinian Mass,” a musical opus recorded with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra that features Sneed alongside his mentor Wynton Marsalis and his acclaimed choir, Chorale Le Chateau.
Combining elements of gospel music, classical and jazz, this musical melting pot allowed this vocalist, composer, multi-instrumentalist and conductor to explore some of the sounds that embody his musical makeup.
An Augusta, Ga. native, Sneed is a graduate of Howard University (Bachelor of Music – Piano Performance) and New York University (a Master of Music in Music Technology: Scoring for Film and Multimedia), in addition to studying at multiple top music conservatories.
In 2011, Sneed served as the musical director for season four of BET’s hit gospel competition show, “Sunday Best.” He’s also worked as music director with the likes of Ashford & Simpson, The Clark Sisters and Kim Burrell; as well as for 2015’s Central Park’s Summer Stage production of “The Wiz: A Celebration in Dance & Music” starring stage veterans Phylicia Rashad, André De Shields, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lillias White and Ebony Jo-Ann.
The distinguished prodigy accomplished a major feat in 2012, making his Carnegie Hall debut as a featured soloist in the work, “Fier Herzog for Piano and Orchestra” by composer Diogo Pereira.
AlwaysAList.com caught up with the music virtuoso to discuss “The Abyssinian Mass” project; his relationship with Marsalis; and his Quincy Jones-inspired concept he hopes to record next.
You are a classically-trained musician with roots in the church. How does it feel to be able to do a project that bridges those worlds?
Being a part of “The Abyssinian Mass” has truly proved to be a dream project. When I was in high school trying to determine a specific direction and path for my musical career, I vacillated back and forth between the idea of classical or jazz. Then by the time I started studying at Howard University in Washington, DC, gospel music was another genre I considered. This project gives me a great sense of fulfillment in knowing that it is possible to be successful being exactly who God created you to be without fitting in a box.
What exactly is “The Abyssinian Mass” and how did you work with Wynton Marsalis to create this original composition?
“The Abyssinian Mass” is a thorough composed musical work commissioned by the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York to commemorate their bicentennial. It is written for jazz orchestra and a large chorus with soloists. Wynton Marsalis composed the music and wrote the words (libretto) himself. When Wynton was working on the voicing for the vocal parts, he asked me to come over and listen to some of what he’d written. While sitting at the piano with him, I began to sing all of the vocal lines (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) and he subsequently asked me to attend rehearsal with the 200-voice choir for “The Abyssinian Mass” the following day. After the rehearsal, he asked me to conduct the world premiere of “The Abyssinian Mass” at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.
I first met my mentor, Wynton Marsalis in the ninth grade when he was on tour with the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Garth Fagan dance company at the Imperial Theater in downtown Augusta, GA. I still have the photo we took backstage. It was completely life-changing to meet someone who I viewed with such a high regard to also possess such humility and that he took the time to speak with me and a few of my high school classmates for over 30 minutes after the performance. Years ago, I remember asking Wynton what was the greatest advice he could give me. I still remember his answer to my question as if it were yesterday. He replied and said, “Damien, one of the most important things you can do is not win awards and garner accolades, but you need to read to be educated about disciplines outside of music (art, history, culture, politics, science, etc.). His advice and wisdom shared that day has definitely helped me a great deal in the various work environments I find myself in.
Do you think real musicianship is becoming lost in this new technology-obsessed generation?
I wouldn’t say that real musicianship is lost with the new technology-obsessed generation. But I will say that technological innovation has definitely made it easier for people to have careers as performing artists in the music world without the traditional approach which required extensive training, education and patience. Now technology allows one to create a musical composition in a few minutes, where it used to take hours or even days just a few years ago.
What music excites you now? Any artists or musicians that you’re really into?
There are a lot of artists, musicians and projects that I’m excited about right now within many different genres. A few of them are Gregory Porter, Cecile McLorin Savant, Tori Kelly, Lalah Hathaway, Tasha Page Lockhart, Brian Courtney Wilson and Cory Henry.
“The Abyssinian Mass” is out and you have been several other recording projects, as well as having released two gospel albums of your own, 2011’s “Introspections LIVE” and 2015’s “Broken To Minister: The Deluxe Edition” with your group The Levites. What would you like do next musically?
I’m currently working on a few “Damien Sneed & Friends” projects. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of meeting and working with many musicians, singers and producers at the top of their craft over the past few years and I want to create musical masterpieces with them. I love the model that Quincy Jones created years ago with “We Are The World,” “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration,” “Back on the Block” and “Q’s Jook Joint.” So there will be a lot of new recording projects coming out very soon.
Sneed will host his third annual music conference, The Levites’ Gathering from Wednesday, June 8 through Saturday, June 11 at New York’s The Cathedral at Greater Faith (4214 White Plains Road, Bronx). For details on the free music and ministry symposium, go to www.thelevitesgathering.com.