"I think of myself as a messenger boy," wrote Duke Ellington, "one who tries to bring messages to people, not people who have never heard of God, but those who were raised more or less with the guidance of the Church." With that as his mission in his last decade, Ellington put together a series of three sacred concerts, the second of which is a far more extensive and adventurous testament to his faith than his first or third. This time, the material is fresh, not a patchwork of old and new like the first concert -- and in an attempt to be as ecumenical as possible, Ellington reaches for novel techniques and sounds beyond his usual big band spectrum. After a passage of nearly formless chaos representing the void before "the Creation" (shades of Haydn's "The Creation"), the chorus enters in "Supreme Being" with an upward glide, and recites the text as if in a service. "Something 'Bout Believing" has the chorus reciting a preachy message in time to the beat, and in "It's Freedom," Ellington gives himself a spoken sermonette, a moving tribute to his recently departed alter ego Billy Strayhorn. Keeping in tune with the times, Ellington frequently plays an electric piano instead of his usual grand piano, his deft light touch and unique sense of time still very much evident on the electric instrument. Yes, there are uneven patches within all of this eclecticism, yet the best of the material is at a very high level -- and this would not become completely apparent until other organizations started performing the music (e.g., the great Los Angeles Master Chorale in a spine-tingling 2004 live performance). The choruses on this recording -- mostly a mixture of school, college, and church groups from the New York metropolitan area -- frankly aren't that good, despite having the inimitable support of the one and only Ellington band wailing behind them. Many of the great soloists were still in the band at this late date -- Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves, Cat Anderson, Russell Procope, Sam Woodyard, and, of course, Johnny Hodges (quietly eloquent as only he could be on "Heaven"). On several numbers, Swedish singer Alice Babs proves to be a worthy successor to the wailers of Ellington's past -- and more virtuosic than most. Due to Fantasy's combined efforts to keep its catalog in print, this sacred concert has received wider exposure than the others, which were subject to the corporate whims of RCA. Originally released as a two-LP set shortly after Ellington's death, the album was compressed onto a single CD, which meant that two numbers from Side 4 of the LPs had to be dumped. And what tracks to lose -- the romping "Don't Get Down on Your Knees to Pray Until You Have Forgiven Everyone" and the choral spiritual "Father Forgive." If you still have a turntable, hunt for the LPs.
Second Sacred Concert Review
by Richard S. Ginell