Ray Herrmann got up this past Sunday morning, dressed and walked the two blocks from his hotel room to St. Paul the Apostle Church for morning Mass. Located almost in the geographic heart of the city near Columbus Circle, the big, granite Paulist church attracts plenty of out-of-town worshipers, some famous.
It’s doubtful that many people in the congregation recognized him. But if any were lucky enough to have had tickets to see the legendary jazz/rock band Chicago play at the Beacon Theatre that evening, Aug. 21, they would have seen Herrmann, saxophone in hand, center stage. What is noteworthy is that the sax man/flautist was in church about five hours after the band bus pulled into Manhattan following a gig in New Hampshire and an overnight drive into the Big Apple.
Ray Herrmann takes his religious faith very seriously.
“I’m Catholic and very proud to be Catholic,” he told CNY during an afternoon interview in a small park outside the Trump Central Park Hotel before going up town for sound checks.
An elite musician and a top session man who has played with some of the biggest names in the history of modern American music—Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, among others—he recognizes his musical talent is a gift from God.
In that light it’s not surprising that the project that brings him the most joy is a set of three CDs he has produced with his wife, Theresa, and the Redemptorists, bringing to life the music of their founder, St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori.
“I’ve never done a project like this,” he said. “People ask me all the time, ‘what’s your favorite thing?’ and by far it was doing these CDs, because it was so much fun and such a wonderful learning experience with my faith.”
The three-disc set consists of “Praying the Rosary With St. Alphonsus Liguori,” “Praying the Seven Sorrows of Mary” and “Praying the Way of the Cross,” which features the prayers of the 17th-century cleric read by acclaimed Irish actor Liam Neeson. Herrmann used his contacts to gather some of the West Coast’s finest classical musicians for the project, including members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Herrmann put together a 40-piece orchestra and 20 singers for the project, which he said came off almost seamlessly. He knows where to give the credit for that.
“No doubt about it, that was the Holy Spirit,” he affirmed. “As we always say, everything good comes from God. His writing, His music is good and that was definitely the Holy Spirit working. That’s why it’s my favorite project and a project I will never tire speaking of.”
Herrmann said the CDs were not meant for passive listening.
“It was my wife’s idea to use St. Alphonsus’s music as a backdrop and a meditation aid to the Rosary,” he explained. “We wanted people to pray the Rosary and we wanted them to feel that St. Alphonsus is sitting right next to you and helping you through each mystery.”
The Redemptorists of the Denver Province initially contacted Herrmann. They had unearthed some sheet music composed by their founder in their archives and were looking for a quality musician to lead the project.
They found Herrmann through Little Lamb music, a record label that he and his wife founded to offer high-quality Catholic music to children and their families. That project originated when the Herrmanns were searching for some lullaby music for their colicky newborn baby girl Maria. They were unable to find any, and Theresa reminded her husband that he was a musician.
“That’s how the Redemptorists found us,” he said. “The Redemptorists saw our Web site and they said we have some music, too, and we’d love for you to listen to it.”
They sent him old homemade recordings and some sheet music. Herrmann was intrigued, especially when he learned that the music was written by St. Alphonsus Liguori. Some of the sheets were difficult to read, but when he started to play the music he knew he wanted to record it. “It’s was emotional for me,” he said. “It touched me right away.”
He says he was never tempted to re-interpret the music.
“I wanted to do it justice,” he explained. “That music had never been heard before. If it was popular and had been out there for generations I think maybe I would have tried to re-invent it, but nobody had heard this before. I was thinking, a small chamber-type orchestra, with flute, clarinet, oboe, the kind of orchestra that would have happened in the mid-18th century.”
Besides, for modern interpretation and improvisation, he has Chicago. After the band finished in New York they drove overnight 12 hours to Detroit for another concert. Herrmann sees no contradiction between his faith and what he does for a living.
“I’m a musician, I am an entertainer,” he said. “But whatever I’m playing, I’m playing to the honor and praise and glory of God.”
The CDs can be ordered separately or together via Amazon or at www.littlelambmusic.com. Proceeds support Redemptorist missions working with the poor.