By Edward Kliszus
For the first time in 35 years, Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts returned to the stage. Envisioned initially by Ellington as a “Festival of Grace,” provenance for Sacred Concerts is informed by a broad spectrum of jazz, classical, and choral music, spirituals, dance, gospel, and blues. Ellington’s compositional product in this venue consisted of a triptych of 34 songs originally recorded in 1965, 1968, and 1973 respectively. It can be argued that an august Ellington facing his mortality considered his Sacred Concerts among his most significant works.
At this standing-room-only event in the New School Tishman Auditorium, the company performed Duke Ellington’s In the Beginning God, Will You Be There?, Ain’t But The One, Heaven, The Lord’s Prayer, The Shepherd, David Danced, Almighty God, Something ‘Bout Believing, Father Forgive, It’s Freedom, Come Sunday, and Praise God and Dance. Ellington enthusiasts likely noted a familiar Come Sunday from his musical Black, Brown and Beige.
The theater’s media systems and staff ensured stunning and intimate audio production and lighting through their management of concomitant, multifarious equipage while each instrumentalist and vocal soloist possessed a microphone. Against the extensive background of the upper rear stage, cycled projections of artist James Little’s meticulously crafted abstract works. Little’s work evolves from geometric shapes and patterns with poignant color associations. This event was an authentic, multi-media experience of music, visual art, dance, lighting, and sound.
The New York Choral Society choir and New School Studio Orchestra filled the stage as they collectively celebrated the legacy, genius, and creative prowess of Ellington, his music, and the famed Duke Ellington Orchestra musicians. The ensemble and solo work of tonight’s instrumental soloists in the New School Studio Orchestra honored and brought to the forefront the historic artistry of Ellington’s powerhouse musicians like pianist/composer Billy Strayhorn, trumpeter Cat Anderson, Harry Carney on baritone sax, Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, Lawrence Brown on trombone, or Louis Bellson on drums.
There were many fine, expressive improvisational solos from tonight’s Studio Orchestra members, including offerings from tenor saxophones, baritone sax, lead and second alto, lead trombone, the rhythm section, and trumpet section members. Kudos to Lead Alto David Glasser, Alto 2 James D’Ambrogia, Lead Tenor Patience Higgins, Tenor 2 Michael Morocco, and Baritone Sax Ben Huff. On trumpets were lead Nick Marchione, Allison Phillips, John Lake, and Wayne Tucker. On trombone lead Deb Weisz, Matt McDonald, and bass trombone Daniel Dunford. In the rhythm section on piano Miles Wilkins, bass Ean Valte, and drums Maya Cohen.
Praise God and Dance featured the amazing tap-dancing artist Daniel J. Watts, who expressed energy, joy, and ebullience. He displayed interminable stamina, charisma, skills, and his ability to seamlessly and instantly interact with soloists in the Studio Orchestra like any other member of a gifted, expressive jazz combo.
If music by Ellington, art by James Little, dance by Daniel J. Watts, and performances by the Choral Society and Studio orchestra were not enough for breathtaking artistic delectation, this auspicious celebration was graced by the presence and narration of Ellington’s renowned and extraordinary daughter Mercedes Ellington. It was an evening of eloquence, finish, virtuosity, opulence, and spirituality that one recalls for a lifetime.
The New York Choral Society presents The Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts
Narrator Mercedes Ellington
Jazz vocalist Brianna Thomas
Baritone and composer Milton Suggs
Painter James Little
Dancer/Performer Daniel J. Watts
Runtime 120 minutes with intermission
New School Tishman Auditorium
63 5th Ave (bet E13th and 14th)
New York, NY 10003