The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra pours its heart and soul into these recent concert performances of Duke Ellington's sacred music, premiered by the Ellington orchestra in 1965, '68 and '73. It's a natural fit, as the SRJO was "born" in 1989 with a presentation of Ellington's sacred music as an ecumenical winter solstice event. Some members of the band stayed together, presented a second concert of Ellington's music three years later at the University of Washington, and the SRJO -- now co-directed by drummer Clarence Acox and saxophonist Michael Brockman -- was formally established in 1996. This two-disc set is taken from concerts presented in 2001, '03 and '05, with the orchestra reinforced on various selections by vocalists Dee Daniels, James Caddell and Nichol Eskridge; the Oregon Repertory Singers; and tap dancer Tim Hickey.
One of the more striking aspects of this "sacred" music is how consistently it swings. That's a tribute to not only Ellington's superlative compositional skills, but also the SRJO and its company of splendid section players and soloists, not to mention the impressive guest artists. Caddell is first up, singing brilliantly on "In the Beginning God," as does Daniels on the spirited "Tell Me It's the Truth." After an instrumental version of "Come Sunday," Gil Seeley guides the Repertory Singers through the inspiring eight-part "Freedom Suite"; Brockman's gossamer alto enhances the lovely "T.G.T.T." (Too Good to Title); and Caddell and Daniels return to close the first disc with the lively, sermonizing "Don't Get Down on Your Knees and Pray (Until You Have Forgiven Everyone)."
Brad Smith's wah-wah trumpet leads Caddell, the chorus and orchestra into the groovy "Ninety-Nine Percent," which opens the second disc. "The Lord's Prayer" is presented twice, in an a cappella reading by the Repertory Singers and a gospel version by Eskridge, following her vocal on the stately "Heaven." Pianist Larry Fuller is the headliner on the meditative "Reflections in D," dancer Hickey on the dynamic "David Danced Before the Lord with All His Might," Daniels on an ardent second version of the prayerful "Come Sunday." Eskridge, Hickey and the chorus join the orchestra on the soulful finale, "Praise God and Dance."
Sacred music, yes, and terrific jazz as well, laden with sharp ensemble passages, sparkling solos and powerful turns by the various guest artists. Kudos to the SRJO and everyone who designed these marvelous concerts.