Just the Best In Ellington’s Sacred Works

The church of Duke Ellington admitted many denominations: gospel, opera, tap and interpretive dance, European orchestral music and hot, small-group percussiveness. His three Sacred Concerts, given their premieres in 1965, 1968 and 1973, weren’t jazz Masses: he insisted on a difference between talking to God and, as he described his own efforts, ‘‘people talking to people about God.’‘ So he took his jazz conception, complete with elements of a nightclub show, into cathedrals. On record, the Sacred Concerts are bold curiosities, sometimes streaked with greatness, sometimes grand and less than inspired. They’re not universally admired and are seldom performed. But one thing about them now seems certain: while the path of incorporating nonjazz into jazz is strewn with failures, Ellington’s aesthetic generosity made that experiment succeed.

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s ‘‘In His Solitude: The Sacred Music of Duke Ellington,’‘ a five-concert run with the pianist Eric Reed as musical director, opened on Thursday at Alice Tully Hall, and it’s a complicated concert, condensing the best of all three works into a cogent two and a half hours. For half of it, Shirley Caesar — whose zealous, guttural style is far more extreme than any of the gospel singers Ellington used — sang Ellington, a separate world from her own. The ingenuity of the band in accommodating her — and Ms. Caesar’s ingenuity in following Ellington’s arrangements to just the right extent before sailing off into the ferocious evangelical singing she’s known for — amounted to some of the most impressive moments Jazz at Lincoln Center has produced.

Here’s how they did it: In ‘‘Tell Me It’s the Truth,’‘ when Ms. Caesar sang, the drummer Herlin Riley emphasized the drums in a gospel waltz rhythm — BOOM-tinga-ting, BOOM-tinga-ting. And the moment the saxophonist Wessell Anderson spelled her for a chorus, Mr. Riley subtly altered that rhythm into a more syncopated swing, pushing his cymbals up into the sound. Gospel is one thing, jazz another, and the rhythm section switched gears back and forth between parallel but separate American modes, serving the strengths of both.

On the recorded version of that song, Esther Marrow sings the words from the page, without extemporizing. Ms. Caesar ripped up the template: she threw herself into a half-sung, half-spoken sermonette about the truth being an unchanging entity and ran through a dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate.

Bouncing on her toes, stalking the stage, her performance rose up out of Ellington and the whole concept of jazz repertory like a balloon. This kind of interpretive energy, matched with the Lincoln Center band’s rounded, superior sound, will help make Ellington’s work, even the lesser-known parts, last.

Having Shirley Caesar taken away from you after only a few minutes is cruelty, and the operatic soprano Roberta Gumbel, who sang parts inhabited originally by the extraordinary Swedish singer Alice Babs, didn’t have a chance — not under Babs’s shadow and especially not coming out directly after Ms. Caesar. Her voice in ‘‘Heaven,’‘ which began with an icy duet of voice and piano and was joined by a purring orchestra with Mr. Anderson soloing over it, rode through the melody’s tone-clashes drily and comfortably; she had everything but the stark, God-struck quality the audience had been primed for.

Wynton Marsalis growled through his muted trumpet for his long solo in ‘‘The Shepherd,’‘ and he seemed to be shooting for the same emotional territory Ms. Caesar claimed: he waved his plunger mute rapidly over the horn’s bell, spiraled out into some nonharmonic notes and theatrically shouted through the instrument. And the dancer Van Porter performed ‘‘David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might,’‘ tapping a solo in front of the band.

Interpreting a quotation from the composer — ‘‘there is no language that God does not understand’‘ — Eric Reed performed a short solo piece in his own language. He established a six-note theme (harking back to the motif of the concert’s opener, ‘‘In the Beginning God’‘) and eventually bounced between overbearing and pianissimo sections. He also worked in some bashed, percussive chords, a little of Bach’s first Partita and a mannered, MGM-musical ending. Then Ms. Caesar sang her version of ‘‘The Lord’s Prayer’‘ while Mr. Reed directed the choir.

‘‘Come Sunday,’‘ last on the program, was a more curious than devastating ending. It was kept short, and Ms. Caesar’s voice, which vibrates and slides with gusto but doesn’t stay still for long tones, didn’t quite bring out the loveliness of Ellington’s melody.

It took someone with a great deal of energy to make the concert hang together. Mr. Reed, nervous and watchful, was right for the job, playing with force, jumping up from his bench to direct the choir and conducting the band. The concert will be repeated today at 2 and 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 3 p.m. This music may never be done so well again.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: New York Times

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