Prom 54: Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music

“Jazz, showbiz and spirituality come together in Duke Ellington’s spectacular Sacred Concerts, which spawned three acclaimed, boundary-crossing albums. Drawing on all three, the Proms presents an exhilarating evening of dance, song and spectacle.” [BBC Proms website]

BBC Singers
Carleen Anderson and the UK Vocal Assembly
Nu Civilisation Orchestra
Peter Edwards

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 August, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

BBC Proms 2019's Prom 54Duke Ellington PromPhotograph: Mark Allan / BBCIt might seem surprising that the music which makes up Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts is only now receiving its due at the Proms. Derived almost entirely from those three such events the jazz magus staged (on both sides of the Atlantic) over his final decade, this selection gave an overview of what were both summations of Ellington’s career and indications of where he felt his music was headed. With a notable line-up of vocalists and instrumentalists directed by the always-reliable Peter Edwards, this programme fascinated yet frustrated in equal measure.

It began, quite appropriately, with In the Beginning God – whose bluesy sax solos and lament on the state of things pre-Creation brought a soulful response from Carleen Anderson. Next came Something ‘Bout Believing, whose superimposing naive (not least its rhyming scheme!) vocal chanting of Biblical tenets against sophisticated instrumental writing was itself a means of provocation; after which, Mary Pearce’s uninhibited rendition of The Lord’s Prayer alongside stentorian trumpet from Ife Ogunjobi was unquestionably in earnest. A focal-point was provided by Praise God and Dance, with its almost ‘classical’ vocal from Emma Tring, and then a tap-dance routine from Annette Walker of likely as much symbolic as rhythmic significance. The affecting ballad My Love was made less so by the mismatch of vocalists while redeemed by Rhiannon Jeffreys’s insinuating sax solo. The racy vocals of Daniel Thomas duly set out the political creed of Ain’t But the One rather more compellingly than the maudlin invocation to God by Randolph Matthews in Father Forgive, with its admittedly potent choral pay-off.

BBC Proms 2019's Prom 54Duke Ellington PromPhotograph: Mark Allan / BBC

From here the programme headed straight into Freedom – a suite in itself given its elaborate choral interplay on the meaning (and in multiple languages!) of this title, replete with subtle piano breaks and a veritable showcase for reeds and brass. Derived from Ellington’s earlier stage-work My People, the choral Heritage (aka My Mother, My Father and Love) featured a slightly cloying assembly of male voices that was soon outraced by Tell Me It’s the Truth – one of the Duke’s most covered numbers and to which alto Beverley Skeete did full justice. Almost as appealing was a trade-off between Emma Tring’s soprano and Nathaniel Facey’s alto sax in Heaven (even if the ‘Latin’ section felt contrived), then pianist Monty Alexander took the floor for an Improvisation on Ellington highlighting several standards in the context of various stylistic idioms. He remained for the final items – Come Saturday, soprano Taiwah and alto Heidi Vogel complementing each other ideally, then David Danced with its jaunty vocal by Renato Paris and Walker’s tap-dancing employed to gainful effect.

There was a sense, even so, that this final number failed to provide a fitting culmination in terms of its relatively low-key emotional impact. The point being, perhaps, that any one of Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts would be worth reviving as an entity in itself not least as Edwards seems well placed to affect a ‘John Wilson’-style restitution – authentic as to its spirit if not necessarily to the letter. That said, the success of this selection in reminding listeners of the overall range and potency of this music could hardly be gainsaid.

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