It’s only fitting that Waco composer and pianist Kurt Kaiser used a hymnal of time-proven songs and anthems as inspiration for his new “Legacy” recording.
As one of the early creative talents behind Waco-based Word Music a half-century ago, Kaiser played a key role in the growth of contemporary Christian music. He’s built a respected career as a leading composer of Christian music, much of which is sung or heard in evangelical churches every Sunday, and some of his best-known songs, such as “Pass It On” and “Oh How He Loves You and Me” are in contemporary hymnals.
Which is where he started for his newly released, double-CD recording “Legacy,” which he says is his last. He’ll perform selections from the new album in concert at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Dayspring Baptist Church.
The Waco composer took the “Worship and Rejoice” hymnal to Billy Crockett’s Blue Rock Ranch and Recording Studio in Wimberley a little more than a year ago and flipped through its pages, improvising at the keyboard as hymn titles brought back memories.
He ended up recording nearly 40 hymns and songs, but put the recordings aside. A longtime friend in Nashville urged him to think about legacy, however, and Kaiser found himself remembering the songs of church tradition that he grew up with and continued to visit throughout his life.
The 78-year-old musician returned to the recorded improvisations on many of those hymns, 38 of which make up “Legacy.”
Improvisation shows a musician’s lifetime of influences and measures much of the style that has flavored his music through the decades, he observed. “It would have sounded differently if I had done this years ago,” he said. “My style has matured. I’m no longer the piano player I was 20 years ago.”
Some of “Legacy’s” selections carry personal memories. There’s “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” a signature song for rich-voiced baritone George Beverly Shea, a vocalist with the Billy Graham Crusades with whom Kaiser worked for more than 30 years. There’s “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” a song gospel singer Ethel Waters made her own; Kaiser, incidentally, served as a pallbearer at her funeral.
There’s a German tune, “Harre, Meine Seele,” which he arranged for Chris Atkins, principal cellist for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. And the CD set closes with “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” a song that the Waco composer points out someone else wrote — Doris Akers — though many know his arrangement of it.
Baylor University chaplain Burt Burleson pastored Dayspring Baptist Church for 13 years, a church Kaiser helped found and served many years as music director.
Burleson said one of Kaiser’s gifts is a well-trained, disciplined virtuosity that underlays his departures from tradition. “He breaks rules all the time, but he knows why he breaks them,” he said.
Kaiser also realizes that a musician or worship leader doesn’t need to say everything. “The quality often missing in evangelical worship these days is that less is more,” Burleson said. “There’s empty space in what Kurt does. . . . He seems to get that at a very deep and intuitive level.”
Kaiser will perform some of the hymns in “Legacy” in Sunday’s concert — but because he’s an improviser at heart, what his audience will hear won’t be exactly like the recorded version. That’s part of his legacy.