For a 50th Anniversary, Celebrating Ellington with Soul and Passion

United StatesUnited States Duke Ellington, Sacred Music: Queen Esther Marrow (gospel singer), Kurt Elling (jazz singer), Savion Glover (dancer), Terrance Kelly (baritone), Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, orchestra led by Miguel Zenón, presented by SFJAZZ at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. 17.9.2015 (HS)

Duke Ellington (arranged and orchestrated by Miguel Zenón)

Come Sunday/Overture
Tell Me It’s the Truth
In the Beginning God
Ain’t But the One
New World A’Coming
The Lord’s Prayer
Come Sunday
David Danced Before the Lord

Band: Miguel Zenón (alto saxophone), Melissa Aldana (tenor saxophone), Sean Jones (trumpet), Marcus Shelby (double bass), Jaz Sawyer (drums) & Edward Simon (piano)

Woodwind Ensemble: Elena Pinderhughes (flute), Andrea Piesnarski (oboe), Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Paul Hanson (bassoon) & Alicia Mastromonaco (French horn)

In September 1965 Duke Ellington helped consecrate Grace Cathedral, the big church on Nob Hill in San Francisco, with a concert of sacred music. Part of a year of celebrations of the building’s completion, the event was a landmark for Ellington. He wrote all the music for the concert, even some songs for a gospel choir, all of it firmly in the jazz idiom but with something more. As a composer he often used jazz as a launch pad for long forms with roots in classical music.

The original program featured an all-star lineup of soloists, including vocalist Jon Hendricks and such formidable members of the Ellington band as drummer Louie Bellson, trumpeter Cootie Williams, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves and of course, Ellington himself on piano. In 1990 Mercer Ellington (Duke’s son, who played trumpet in the original concert) conducted the Ellington band and the same soloists in a 25th-anniversary reprise.

Thursday night before a sold-out audience, Miguel Zenón led a stage full of instrumentalists, singers—and one phenomenal dancer—in a 21st-century update of Ellington’s music from 50 years ago. Zenón conducted, wrote the arrangements and revised  Ellington’s big band orchestrations for a jazz sextet plus a woodwind quintet—and he is also alto saxophonist in the 8-piece SFJAZZ Collective.

The result achieved plenty of power. The woodwinds softened the hard edges of the original brass-heavy treatment, and the extra spaciousness of the smaller ensemble resonated in the huge space. Zenón even made subtle use of the cathedral’s 7-second echo delay to overlap arpeggios in improvised solos.

The only performer who appeared on the original program, Queen Esther Marrow, sang Ellington’s lines in “Tell Me It’s The Truth” like the gospel singer she started out to be, and “Come Sunday” like the veteran jazz singer she is. In her 70s, moving across the stage with the help of a cane, she displayed a voice still pure, clear and youthful.

As Hendricks did before, jazz singer Kurt Elling enunciated the central theme of the music Ellington wrote for the occasion, an idée-fixe motif on the words “In the Beginning God.” The figure rose to a different destination on each successive appearance. He then recited Billy Strayhorn’s remarkable flourish on those words over a jazz development of the musical figure, eventually reaching a heady climax.

Several of the 1965 program’s gospel chorus numbers and traditional spirituals were omitted. One that survived was “Ain’t But The One,” featuring the choir’s leader, Terrance Kelly, and it rocked the house.

“New World A’Coming,” Ellington’s musical prayer for a happier future (written for a 1943 Carnegie Hall concert), drew eloquent playing by Edward Simon, the pianist in the jazz group. Marrow followed the sinuous turns in Ellington’s take on “The Lord’s Prayer” with a soulful, slow-rocking version of “Come Sunday” (originally part of the landmark Black, Brown and Beige suite.

Multiple solos were interspersed through the evening. Zenón took the lead often, and Sean Jones offered a wonderful tribute to Williams in his trumpet’s stratospheric range at the climax of “In the Beginning God.” Melissa Aldana channeled Gonsalves in her tenor sax solos. Among the “extra” woodwinds, Elena Pinderhughes (flute) and Ben Goldberg (clarinet) contributed their own swinging solos.

If “In the Beginning God” was the midpoint highlight, the finale “David Danced Before the Lord” topped it. As his mentor Bunny Briggs did in 1965, tap dancer Savion Glover set the tempo and rhythm without any extra histrionics, and his energy never flagged as the piece unfolded. Over nearly 15 minutes, he neatly interwove strands from “Come Sunday” and “In the Beginning God” into a rich texture. Jazz solos (e.g., an especially delicious tête-a-tête between Glover and bassist Marcus Shelby), choir flares, and a vocal scat solo by Elling culminated in grand chords, echoing against the stone surfaces of the cathedral as the audience rose in appreciation.

Harvey Steiman

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