One of William Faulkner’s most famous turns of phrase anchors the chorus of “Not Even Past,” the second track from keyboardist Curt Sydnor’s forthcoming album "Heaven Is Begun." Harmonizing with vocalist and frequent collaborator Laura Ann Singh, Sydnor sings, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Sydnor’s musical career is a testament to how true Faulkner’s words can ring.
When he’s not making forward-thinking albums that merge jazz, classical, gospel and rock, the Lynchburg native serves as organist and music director at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Richmond. Sydnor endearingly likened its three-manual, 23-rank Heissler pipe organ to a “giant synthesizer” when discussing how choosing and layering sounds in that setting compares to his experiences as a touring keyboardist supporting everyone from indie singer and songwriter Mirah to the king of Sierra Leonean Bubu music, Janka Nabay.
“It would be very hard to have a conversation with [an earlier version of] myself and say, ‘Look, this is what you’re going to be doing in five years, but it’s going to be extremely rewarding.’”
Gospel music does run in Sydnor’s family. His paternal grandmother played organ at a Presbyterian church in Lynchburg for more than 50 years, though it was Bach that they bonded over. “She was obsessed with Bach. Truly obsessed. I loved that about her, and it kind of carried over to me. But I never got the chance to talk to her about organ playing, or the hymn tradition, because I wasn’t interested.”
After studying piano at Vanderbilt University, Sydnor followed the work of classical greats Scriabin, Prokofiev and Shostakovich all the way to those composers’ motherland, spending two years studying at the Russian Academy of Music in Moscow. Graduate degrees in jazz and classical piano performance from Indiana University followed. “Trying to combine my passion for music with some kind of respectable career path – I took the track,” he says. “I took the track of academia and I got really deep.”
It’s hard to imagine Sydnor on any narrow pathway, given how generous and wide-ranging his current output is. In March 2020 he released the exhilarating free jazz album “Deep End Shallow” on Out of Your Head Records, and his enveloping indie-psych exploration “The Consort” came out a year later on his own Passerine Records label. Both were made in collaboration with bassist Michael Coltun, also part of Janka Nabay’s backing band.
Sydnor calls playing with Nabay “the strongest possible rejection that I could possibly muster to the jazz and classical academic career paths.” While his stint lasted no more than a couple of years, Nabay helped him do some essential rhythmic rewiring. “A meter, or a rhythm, is something that can actually exist within the cracks of the Western approach to what we deem immutable concepts,” Sydnor found.
Re-examination has become central to Sydnor’s creative outlook. "Heaven Is Begun” is due out in early 2022 and it’s the second album to feature a dynamic Richmond-based quartet that includes Sydnor, Laura Ann Singh, bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Scott Clark. They first teamed up for Sydnor’s 2020 album “Revolutionary Etudes,” which grew out of an experiment where Sydnor provided new musical context for a passage of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” Walt Whitman’s elegiac response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
“We actually tried it at [Emmanuel] for the first time,” Sydnor recalls. “During a church service, we played ‘War Orphans’ by Ornette Coleman with words by Walt Whitman, and I found it to be very moving, because that church has a lot of history – a lot of Civil War history.”
He notes that Richmond has always been particularly present in his imagination, dating back to his years growing up two hours west. He and his wife spent six months in Lynchburg following a 2018 move back to Virginia from Brooklyn, where Sydnor had been based since 2011. While looking for opportunities to plant roots in Richmond, Sydnor decided to take organ lessons and churches immediately sought his services.
“After one lesson I started getting desperate calls from churches saying, ‘Please, we need you to play,’” he recalls, adding that even after he told them he was no good, they insisted. “They’d say, ‘We don’t care. If you’re willing to do it, we’ll pay you.’ So I started doing it and started learning the hymns, and then I started to connect with something that was buried in my subconscious.”
While he’s been reconnecting with his own history, living in Richmond has driven creative engagement with the broader reckoning around systemic racism in America. He sees his music as part of an ongoing effort “to reassess one’s entire worldview as a white person, and one’s entire survival structure within white supremacy and the systems that we have.” It’s a level of convergence in the personal, societal and vocational realms that many artists search for their entire lives.
“[Richmond] is where I want my scene to be,” he says. “This is where I want to be able to experiment and grow and bring this music toward further development, because it’s just really started to unveil itself in my mind.”
Curt Sydnor and Heaven Words perform at the Hofheimer Building’s Dark Room on Tuesday, July 20, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $10.