Toward the end of his extraordinarily productive career, Duke Ellington assembled three of what he called Sacred Concerts -- and that title has given commentators a hard time.
Obviously Ellington’s deep religious faith drives these patchworks of then-newly composed pieces and assorted liftings from his past. But what the term “sacred” doesn’t convey is the showbiz pizazz and shafts of emotion that these concerts generate –- and you don’t have to be religious to feel it.
Grant Gershon, co-conductor/jazz-meister James Newton and the Los Angeles Master Chorale mounted an Ellington Sacred Concert in 2004 during the master chorale’s first season in Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was a rousing success, approaching and in some cases actually surpassing the standard that Ellington’s own performances set -- which is supposed to be impossible. Sunday night, they did another one to close Gershon’s 10th anniversary season -- and it was every bit as terrific as the first.
The 2011 concert was almost a replay of the 2004 one -- the same pieces from Ellington’s first two Sacred Concerts in the same order, with “23rd Psalm” swapped for “The Majesty of God” and “The Lord’s Prayer” from the third Sacred Concert, a more-than-fair trade. Most of the players from Newton’s big band in 2004 were back -- including, crucially, the great grooving drummer Ndugu Chancler -- and while no present-day group can replicate the idiosyncratic sounds of a Cat Anderson, a Johnny Hodges, a Harry Carney, etc., this band played with a wild abandon of its own that evoked the Ellington ethos without imitating it.
Tap dancer Channing Cook Holmes returned to electrify the house in Ellington’s ingenious concerto for tap dancer, “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might.” Singer Carmen Lundy soulfully drew out “Come Sunday,” which uses the same tune as “David.”
Yet the decisive element in this hall-rocking re-creation was the Master Chorale, a chorus with a depth and richness that Ellington never had at his disposal. These voices had the power to transform, illuminating inner harmonies in “Something 'Bout Believing” that could only be guessed at from Ellington’s recording, while swinging mightily with the band. It was spine-tingling.
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-- Richard S. Ginell
Above: Vocalist Darius de Haas, accompanied by a jazz orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, sings Ellington at Disney Hall. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times