Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday July 24th *****
The Queen’s Hall was a born-again church on Wednesday night as the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, conducted by Clark Tracey, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Choir staged an ambitious, 90-minute performance of Duke Ellington’s sacred music – music from three major concerts which took place in cathedrals (in San Francisco, New York and at Westminster) in the last decade of the great composer, bandleader and pianist’s life.
Rather than being a compilation of pieces of music from the three concerts; Wednesday’s Sacred Concert was very much an entity in its own right: this was Stan Tracey’s distillation of the sacred music (itself a blend of jazz, spirituals, classical music and blues) in to one, 90-minute performance which, inkeeping with the spirit of the original events, featured classical singers and a tap dancer.
It may have sounded like a strange mish-mish on paper, but it worked; in fact, it more than worked – it was a bit of a sensation, thoroughly engaging throughout and at various points utterly electrifying and extremely moving (though some of the lyrics spoken, Rex Harrison-style by the impressive baritone Jerome Knox sounded as if they had been penned by the Pythons for The Life of Brian).
Of course it’s always a thrill to hear the wondrous Ellington sound being channelled through a top-notch band (and that was certainly the case here), but experiencing those uniquely Ellingtonian harmonies being sung by a first-rate choir – a cappella on the exquisite Will You Be There? and Father Forgive – took it to a different level.
Only one aspect of the concert was weak: soprano Teuta Koko was mesmerising when in operatic mode but her voice lacked presence and depth for the swinging and/or spiritual songs.
*First published in The Herald, Friday July 26th