As often as not when talking about the crossroads of jazz and spirituality, the music very often mentioned is something like John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Duke Ellington’s three sacred concerts. And deservedly so, both Coltrane and Ellington were committed to the exploration of the spiritual possibilities of jazz, and nowhere is that passion more explicitly front and center than in those iconic works. So when new opportunities to reinvigorate these works of commitment become available attention should be paid.
The release of Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts, a live recording of selections from the first and second of the three Ellington concerts in May, provides just such an opportunity. The concerts were recorded in Lüneburg, Germany in September 2015. They feature the excellent 60-voiced Junges Vokalensemble Hannover (under the direction of Klaus-Jürgen Etzold), vocal soloists Claudia Burghard and Joachim Rust, and the Fette Hupe Big Band (directed by Jörn Marcussen-Wulf, who also served as artistic director of the project).
The album opens with a 16-minute version of “In the Beginning God,” a kind of introduction allowing all of the participants to share a piece of the spotlight—soloists from the big band leading to the vocal soloists and the chorus. Other pieces from the 1965 concert include “Come Sunday,” which the composer borrowed from his Black, Brown and Beige suite. Here it’s a highlight for Claudia Burghard. “David Danced” has saxophonist Felix Petry doing the tap dancing handled by Bunny Briggs on the original. “Ain’t But the One” adds some up-tempo gospel flavor with Joachim Rust up front.
“Will You Be There” is a short piece for the choir and Gary Winters big band trumpeter who does all the spoken word work on the album. They also work together on an angelic “Father Forgive” from the 1968 concert. Winters, by the way, plays some hot trumpet on a lowdown version of “The Shepherd.” They close with a rousing long form take on “It’s Freedom.” By the way, this last and the opener, “In the Beginning God,” only seem to be available on the album.