Freedom, justice and prayer's power are Ellington's themes in his sacred music
You do not need nationally-renowned jazz orchestras to make brilliant recordings. Most every major city in the U.S. has national- level jazz musicians. Many of them choose to teach and lead high school and college level jazz bands. They can then play gigs on weekends and during the summer season. They are often first call sidemen when national talent plays gigs in their cities.
Such is the case with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. Though a few of their members boast national recognition - i.e. Hadley Caliman, who recorded for Blue Note in the 1970s - the balance of the orchestra members are not household names outside of the Northwest.
Yet the SRJO saw fit to tackle the Sacred Music of Duke Ellington in recorded live performances in Seattle and Kirkland, Washington, and in Portland, Oregon during the Fall and Winter of 2003. Origin Records has had the privilege of putting out a double CD set of these recordings in a 2006 issue. These performances featured the full production including the Oregon Repertory Singers, and vocalists Dee Daniels, James Caddell, and Nicholl Eskridge.
Ellington premiered his Sacred Music late in his career, with expanded performances done in the years of 1965, 1968, and 1973. Duke was inspired by both the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s as well as his own religious upbringing. When the Dean of San Francisco's famed Grace Cathedral invited Duke to compose his own sacred music, Ellington - never one to back down from a challenge - took on the task. The first two performances were done in 1965 and 1968 and Duke expanded his compositions in 1973 for the third Sacred Concert to honor the United Nations.
In this Origin label production, the SRJO performs selections from all three Sacred Concerts, and handle this daunting task with aplomb. Ranging from In the Beginning God; the instrumental and vocal versions of Come Sunday; to the majestic Freedom Suite, featuring a soulful chorus of voices, you can sense the joy in their performance. The a cappella sections of the Freedom Suite blend with pianist Larry Fuller's piano lines to give an ethereal vibe. The orchestra's reeds and horns have ample opportunity to solo around the vocalists testifying. Too Good to Title features conductor Michael Brockman in a gorgeous soprano sax solo.
Themes of freedom, the redemptive power of prayer, and the search for justice permeate the entire production.
Disc 2 of the set is devoted to versions of the Lord's Prayer, both a cappella and gospel, as well as Reflections in D from Ellington's Piano Reflections solo album. Here pianist Fuller does Duke proud. Ninety Nine Percent (Won't Do) is given the full gospel treatment with a nice gutbucket trombone solo by Don Marcus.
Tap dancer Tim Hickey taps mightily on the appropriately named David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might. Then Northwest chanteuse Dee Daniels does a sanctified version of Come Sunday. The second CD closes with a multi-vocal Praise God and Dance with six instrumental soloists thrown in for good measure.
I had the pleasure of attending their Portland performance and feel that this 2-CD set is a treasure that deserves national exposure. And a mighty Amen to all involved for taking on this labor of love.