Like another internationally celebrated Washingtonian, vocalist Marvin Gaye, Duke Ellington's overt declarations of faith were composed, recorded and performed toward the end of his career. By 1965, when Ellington's First Sacred Concert was performed, his always stunning gift for crafting a sensual and evocative orchestral palette had grown even more sublime - not unlike Gay's equally moving vocal arsenal.
Yet critical response to Ellington's three Sacred Concerts (1965, 1968, and 1973) was as mixed as the collective collage of musical influences found in the respective recordings. But like Gaye, whose 1971 recording "What's Goin On" was not exactly embraced by Berry Gordy and the brass at Motown, Ellington had - asalways - something to say to "the people with the ears."
This two CD set by the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra consists of20 titles from the aforementioned extended works. And though this ensemble is a repertory aggregation, the performances manage to embody Ellington's questing, playful and prayerful spirit without succumbing to facile imitations of the recordings, or an artistic version of "cold feet."
Highlights include a magisterial reading of "In The Beginning God," in which vocalist James Caddell and saxophonist Hadley Caliman excel (my CD player's repeat button may be on its last legs now!); conductor Michael Brockman's alto saxophone treatment of Duke's serene, melodically deceptive "T.G.T.T." from the Second Sacred Concert; the too seldom heard piano solo "Reflections in D" (performed by Larry Fuller); and the acapella interpretation of "The Lord's Prayer" from the Third Sacred Concert. (When will this concert be reissued on CD?)
While I would have loved to have seen this crack ensemble tackle the likes of "The Majesty of God" or "My Love" (two additional gems from the Third Concert), The Sacred Music of Duke Ellington serves as an exemplary introduction to the work of this fine ensemble, and of a still undervalued phase of Duke Ellington's career.