Musically, nothing was more profound to Duke Ellington during the last ten years of his life than his Sacred Music, a series of three major liturgical works written and performed by Ellington between 1965 and 1973. Stan Tracey commemorates a series of performances of the Sacred Music which began in 1966 at various venues around England. After the last major concert in 1982 at St. Paul's Cathedral, discussions began for another concert, this time at the Durham Cathedral. Financial problems delayed the undertaking so that it wasn't until 1990 that the concert finally came off with Tracey conducting. The concert was repeated in May of 1993 and was once more acclaimed as an artistic (and commercial) success. Those two performances prepared the way for this album.
Tracey -- who has been at on the jazz scene in Europe for almost five decades -- and 33Jazz have gathered a talented and musically intelligent group of musicians for this endeavor. If nothing else, Ellington showed how many different musical formats could be used for "religious" or sacred music. There's the jazz voice of top singer Tina May on such up-tempo, swinging "benedictions" as "The Lord's Prayer" and her passionate supplication on "Almighty God Has Those Angels." This is contrasted with classical soprano Teresa Troiani's devout version of "Come Sunday" (which Ellington wrote in 1944 outside the context of his Sacred Music). Ellington's musicians and instruments, though, were his main messengers to convey his unique sense of religiosity. Alan Barnes' dramatic alto on the second version of "Come Sunday" and his clarinet on "In the Beginning, God," along with the baritone sax of Jay Craig, make these tracks two of the more compelling on the set. On the latter, their playing is a segue to the baritone of Niall Hoskin and the narration of Edward Wilson. Outstanding choral work adds to the feeling of ardent worship.
When Ellington first presented his Sacred Music, it wasn't received well by either critics or the public. But, like good wine, it has gained greater acceptance with age. Tracey performs an invaluable service with this offering by reminding us of the majesty of this music.