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This is an absorbing entry in the “Duke Ellington Centennial Sweepstakes,” ably performed in concert by the Princeton University Concert Jazz Ensemble and a cast of thousands (actually, the Glee Club and Gospel Ensemble) conducted by Anthony Branker. The music is excerpted from Ellington’s three Concerts of Sacred Music, which premiered in 1965, ’68 and ’73 (the last only a year before his death in May 1974). For music that is focused primarily on the spiritual, there’s a conspicuous measure of hard–core Jazz (which shouldn’t be too surprising considering its author) including but not limited to blues and swing. Instead of tap–dancing around the music, the ensemble and chorus bring on a bona fide tap–dancer (Ra–Sean Holloway) to help interpret the energetic song “David Danced Before the Lord with All His Might” (whose melody is the same as “Come Sunday,” which is superbly performed later by mezzo–soprano Jayon Anthony). “David Danced” is a real crowd–pleaser, as are several other numbers including “Tell Me It’s the Truth,” “Something About Believing” and “Praise God and Dance.” The vocalists are so keenly polished it’s hard to believe they’re still undergraduates. Instrumental soloists seem inspired too, especially alto saxophonist Audrey Wright (“Heaven,” “Something About Believing”), trumpeters Eli Asher (“Ain’t But the One,” “David Danced”) and Charles Baxter (“The Shepherd”), baritone Alex Kontorovich (“Praise God”), clarinetist Charles Silio (“Almighty God”) and tenors Vivek Mathew (“David Danced,” “It’s Freedom”) and Rob Liguori (“Praise God and Dance”). Trombonist Mario Davis, the narrator on “Will You Be There?,” “Father Forgive” and “It’s Freedom,” has a pleasing voice but is hard to hear above the chorus. While Ellington’s sacred pieces are less frequently performed, they are often as picturesque and dynamic as his secular music. Here’s splendid proof of that statement.
Track listing: Will You Be There?; Ain’t But the One; Tell Me It’s the Truth; Heaven; Something About Believing; Father Forgive; The Lord’s Prayer; The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock); David Danced Before the Lord with All His Might; Praise God; Almighty God; Come Sunday; It’s Freedom; Praise God and Dance (71:05).
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.