Even if this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme wasn’t lacklustre, one entry would stand out as more ambitious and impressive than the rest: the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts which are taking place in both the Queen’s Hall and in Dunfermline Abbey, and which feature this year’s incarnation of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, along with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus, Stan Tracey on piano and Clark Tracey conducting.
Ellington’s Sacred Concerts were a trio of concerts spread over the last decade of the life of the legendary composer, bandleader and pianist, who died in 1974, just six months after the final concert. A unique blend of gospel music, classical music, jazz, choral music and the blues filtered through the distinctive Ellington sound prism and written for a band that included many of the great “Ellingtonians”, the Sacred Concerts were, for Duke, his “most important” work. When he was asked to present the first concert, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965, he said: “Now I can say openly what I have been saying to myself on my knees.”
For the last 20-odd years, the Sacred Concerts have also been an important part of the lives of both Stan Tracey, the great British pianist and lifelong Ellington devotee, and his drummer son, Clark. And both generations of Traceys play key roles in these first-ever performances of this music in Scotland.
Back in 1990, Stan Tracey was invited to play Ellington’s sacred music at a special concert to mark the 900th anniversary of Durham Cathedral. When he was given the music, he and Clark recognized the same arrangements he had played at an earlier Sacred Concert into which he’d been drafted at the last minute. What struck them was, says Clark, “that the transcriptions hadn’t been done right.”
Father and son spent several days figuring out “a much closer approximation of the music” by listening to records of the original Ellington concerts. Clark Tracey recalls: “It was an arduous task but it was really enjoyable too – once you get to that level; the Ellington level. A lot of it was accurate but there were a lot of really poignant, squelchy Ellington moments – those very personal voicings – and it took a while to put your finger on how he’d done them.”
Although the Tracey household had always been immersed in Ellington music, the Sacred Concert albums were less familiar than some of the other LPs. “You don’t just bung those records on, the way you could the others, so it’s always been a very special event,” says Tracey. “And to be able to perform that music is fantastic. I played on the first one Stan did, at Durham Cathedral, and we’ve since played it at all kinds of cathedrals. We did it at Yorkminster last year and that was immense, that one. We had a 250-piece choir accompanying us.”
This isn’t a concert that’s liable to get the spine tingling just once or twice: according to Tracey, it’s packed with electrifying moments. “The best bits are probably the fusion between the orchestra and the choir – when it’s done correctly, the voice is obviously one of the most moving things in any band, so to get Ellington’s voicings … Two of the pieces are a cappella, and they’re absolutely wondrous. I’ve seen grown man cry at them.”
As in Yorkminster, when the Traceys bring the Sacred Concerts to Scotland, Clark will be conducting. “That’s simply down to Stan wanting to put all his energy into just playing the piano and not having to concentrate on leaping up and conducting a band in at the right tempo.. Before Yorkminster my only conducting experience was with a string quartet and I wasn’t that amazing. It’s because I know this music inside-out, and I’m going to hit the tempos bang where they should be that he’s asked me. It’s just taken a huge weight off my dad’s mind, knowing that I’m going to be standing there instead of him.”
* First published in The Herald, Wednesday July 24 (but written for earlier publication)