In the jazz world, recreating much of Ellington's repertoire can be a touchy subject. Some feel that what Ellington's bands created is so unique, that to revisit it would be akin to repainting the Sistine Chapel -- that some things are meant to stand alone, admired but untouched. When it comes to attempting to simply imitate these works, I would have to agree. On their recent release, Sacred Music of Duke Ellington, The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra accomplishes what few contemporary bands have: a balance between ensemble sections that stay true to Ellington's sound and improvisational sections that fit the context while allowing each soloist to speak in their own unique voice. Anyone who has attempted a similar endeavor will know just how difficult attaining this balance is. It requires an ensemble of artists that can weave effortlessly between sacrifice (blending into the required ensemble sound) and indulgence (telling your story). Most of all, everyone has to swing hard and with the same concept. Without a doubt, the SRJO has assembled the right musicians to do just that.
The live, 2-CD offering combines works recorded from Ellington's three Sacred Music Concerts premiered in 1965, 1968 and 1973. It opens with In the Beginning God, and in the opening rhythm section vamp, one can immediately hear the ease with which the foundation of this ensemble plays together as one unit. Co-Director Clarence Acox (drums) lays down every groove from this latin feel to the hard-driving swing numbers that follow with a rare mix of subtlety and authority. Phil Sparks (bass) and Acox lock in together seamlessly in every feel and tempo, a feat that any bass player or drummer will tell you is rarer than you might think. Larry Fuller (piano) improvises over the opening vamp, and I liked the fact that you would not know this was Ellington yet. Fuller has his own vocabulary that at times has a rhythmic bounce akin to Red Garland, a soulful quality ala Wynton Kelly and melodic/harmonic aspects of Bill Evans -- obviously a powerful combination! The ensemble soon follows with statements by Bill Ramsay (baritone sax) and Dan Wickham (clarinet). Both achieve the difficult goal of paying tribute to Carney/Hamilton while not completely letting go of their own sound. When the ensemble joins in full behind Wickham, the Ellington sound is unmistakable and impressively rendered. James Caddell continues with the dramatic vocal entrance meant to musically depict The Creation as described in Genesis. Also featured on the piece are trumpeter Jay Thomas and tenor saxophonist Hadley Caliman. Thomas brings a smooth, legato rhythmic concept and contemporary sound mixed with fluid bebop lines to his solos, while Caliman, employing vocabulary adeptly rooted in the hard-bop era, plays with an energy and abandon that evoke Paul Gonsalves.
The next time someone tells me there are too few great vocalists left in the jazz world, I will be sure to lend them this recording. James Caddell, Dee Daniels and Nichol Eskridge are all firmly rooted in the gospel tradition while demonstrating a mastery of jazz and the blues. Caddell can sound like an operatic baritone as in In the Beginning God, and turn around conjure Joe Williams over the blues-drenched Ninety-Nine Percent. He has a rich, deep tone that can be used both powerfully and with finesse. Dee Daniels is featured on Tell Me It's the Truth and Come Sunday. She has a pure instrument and has learned to use it however she sees fit. She glides seamlessly from straight, pure tones to glissandos, growls and tastefully employed vibrato. One moment she is rhythmically precise, right in the pocket, the next weaving behind or ahead of the pulse at will. On Come Sunday you will soon know of her ties to Sarah Vaughan through her lush lower register. Over Don't Get Down on Your Knees to Pray (Until You Have Forgiven Everyone), Daniels and Caddell engage in a humorous, testifyin' call and response that combines some soulful preaching and a few chuckles with some sincere spiritual advice.
Nichol Eskridge has her chance to shine on Heaven, The Lord's Prayer, and Praise God and Dance. Eskridge has that rare gift to draw beauty out of one held note without adorning it in any way, proving that if you got it, you don't need to dress it up. That just makes her use of vibrato, scoops and falls that much more effective. On Heaven, Ellington wrote some extremely difficult intervals into the vocal line and she sings them perfectly. Much of this piece showcases her upper register, so when you hear The Lord's Prayer it sounds like a different singer as she draws from her lower range to deliver some forceful gospel spirit. All three vocalists on this recording have complete rhythmic control, perfect intonation and above all they swing their collective asses off. It's a rare combination and the Pacific-Northwest is blessed to have them in one area.
Yet another vocal asset is the addition of the Oregon Repertory Singers under the direction of Gil Seeley. Ellington wrote many choral sections into these compositions and they are faithfully rendered here. Particularly impressive is their version of The Lord's Prayer, an a cappella arrangement with some beautiful (but difficult) harmonies and challenging melodic lines. It is a fine example of a choir that combines accurate intonation, clear enunciation and sincere emotion. Ellington even included a part for a tap dancer, performed here by Tim Hickey. Over the two-beat David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might, Hickey delivers an incredible display of percussive tap, sounding rhythmically like a snare drum in a second-line New Orleans ensemble. He returns in Praise God and Dance, but the scoring, which calls for him to dance along with improvised horn solos is less effective as their styles conflict rhythmically.
Tell Me It's the Truth is a gospel/waltz that opens with Bill Anthony (trombone) and Mark Taylor (alto saxophone) playing an impressive gutbucket counterpoint to one another. On the other side of Daniels' vocal, Phil Sparks gets his chance to solo and displays perhaps the most mature balance of space and sound heard on the entire record. His solo swings, breathes and tells a story. Fuller is also featured here and on several other tracks, displaying a great range of style and genre. His solo feature, Reflections in D, showcases the breadth of his vocabulary and reminds us that Ellington was blurring the lines between jazz, contemporary classical music and other genres long before Keith Jarrett.
Michael Brockman (alto/soprano saxophone) is the other Co-Director of the group and is featured on The Freedom Suite, T.G.T.T. (Too Good to Title) and Heaven. He plays with a confident, versatile sound that can convey the smoothness of Hodges or Desmond over one phrase and then dig into a more gritty bebop-influenced tone (think Phil Woods) in the same solo. T.G.T.T. is a soprano duet with Fuller (another successful departure from a strict interpretation of Ellington's score) where both put on a great clinic in lyricism, listening and sincerity.
Just about everyone in the ensemble gets a chance to improvise on this recording and deservedly so. Travis Ranney (tenor sax) on The Freedom Suite and Praise God and Dance displays a great command of blues and bebop vocabulary, switching from playing rhythms right in the pocket to a more elastic, rubato feel and even gives us a glimpse of what Coltrane may have sounded like over this repertoire. Brad Smith (trumpet) and Dan Marcus (trombone) have the essential Ellington roles of plunger soloists on Ninety-Nine Percent. Both do an excellent job at providing authentic sounds and still expressing their own interesting ideas. Mark Taylor (alto saxophone) takes his turn on Praise God and Dance and showcases an incredible command of styles, dexterously interweaving lines that take one from sounds reminiscent of Cannonball, Dolphy and Desmond and makes it all his own.
I have used a number of comparisons to some jazz greats in describing many of the soloists in the SRJO. It is impossible to describe this ensemble and its' members in one specific way because they are constantly adapting to what the music calls for -- jazz chameleons if you will. Perhaps some of this is due to experience and familiarity, with the first inception of these concerts going back to 1989. The crowd obviously knows how special this music is, as their presence is loudly asserted at the end of the numbers and often during them. The combination of Ellington's devotional music with the soul and energy of the ensemble and audience create an atmosphere at times akin to a southern tent revival meeting. For all his composing and arranging techniques, Duke knew that the secret to creating timeless music was capturing the unique sounds and gifts that each individual musician brings to the bandstand. These musicians all swing and they all have something to say. As Duke once put it, "If it sounds good, it is good." -- and it's never sounded better.