Taken in the same sitting, as it were, with Duke Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts, as previewed in RCA’s mammoth 24-disc complete collection of Duke’s recordings for Victor, this new performance of Schifrin’s 1964 “Jazz Mass,” as originally commissioned by flutist Paul Horn, offers some striking contrasts, both musical and liturgical. Most importantly, Duke’s approach to his thematic material reflects an African-American perception of the Christian faith, as based on firsthand individual and collective cultural experience, which is to say that its musical expression finds its outlets in swinging jazz polyrhythms, bent pitches, and melismatic phrase contours, instrumental improvisation, widespread use of solo and choral voice, and, at one point, even tap dance. Moreover, his lyrics are not only earthy and humorous at times, but they are also ecumenical in their appeal to all mankind’s inherent spirituality. By comparison, Schifrin adheres rather closely to Roman Catholic orthodoxy in his text, but there is nothing in the least medieval or Gothic about his updated musical settings. He too can swing, albeit in a less tonally varied manner.
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