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WORLD FESTIVAL OF SACRED MUSIC | Jazz Review

Luckman Orchestra Delivers Ellington's Work With Flair

September 23, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Duke Ellington's attraction to sacred music played a powerful role in the last decade of his life. His first full-fledged program of sacred compositions, commissioned by San Francisco's Grace Cathedral in 1965, was largely--with the exception of "In the Beginning, God"--a compilation of previous selections from works such as "Black, Brown and Beige." His second concert of sacred music, premiered at Manhattan's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, included virtually all-new efforts, as did the third sacred music concert, at London's Westminster Abbey in 1973.

Although Ellington's sacred works have never quite received the public attention allocated to his songs or, for that matter, to his jazz orchestral pieces, they have been recorded and performed, in bits and pieces, by a wide range of artists.

None, however, has matched either the authenticity or the enthusiasm of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra's presentation of selections from all of Ellington's three sacred concerts on Saturday night at the Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood.

Aided by a choir and soloists from five churches, the orchestra, conducted with great flair by James Newton, offered a full evening of the superb Ellington music that the ensemble had minimally offered in the festival's opening event on Sept. 14.

In that performance, the orchestra's sound was badly damaged by a distorted audio mix. No such problem at Faithful Central's huge, warehouse-like hall, however, with its state-of-the-art sound and careful reproduction.

As a result, the sheer beauty of the Ellington score, from the stunning spirituality of "In the Beginning, God" to the climactic rhythms of "David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might," emerged with pristine musical clarity.

In the process, the orchestra reaffirmed its growing importance as one of the Southland's premiere musical ensembles. Blessed with a hugely talented array of soloists--saxophonists Bennie Maupin, Jack Nimitz, Keith Fiddmont and Charles Owens, trumpeters Nolan Shaheed, Bobby Rodriguez and Bijon Watson, trombonists George Bohannon and Isaac Smith, pianist Lanny Hartley--and driven by the propulsive drumming of Leon "Ndugu" Chancler, the orchestra brilliantly captured Ellington's remarkable blending of musical joy and spiritual devotion.

The highlights came in profusion: Nimitz's baritone soloing on "Praise God," so reminiscent of Ellington's longtime sideman, Harry Carney; the congregation-rousing musical preaching of trumpeter Shaheed on "The Shepherd Who Watches Over the Night Flock"; trombonist Bohanon leading the musical charge of the orchestra and chorus in "It's Freedom"; the fleet tap-dancing of young Landry Barb II on "David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might"; and the sweet soprano voice of Aladrian Elmore on "My Love."

Add to that the overall interaction between orchestra and chorus and the vocal contributions of bass Cedric Berry (especially on "In the Beginning, God") and Henrietta Davis (who is the conductor of Faithful Central's Heritage Chorale) and the result was an evening to remember--a rare, wonderful opportunity to experience the creative powers of one of jazz's (and, perhaps, the 20th century's) most important composers, at the service of spiritual universality.

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