JazzTimes 10: Very Late Duke Ellington Albums

Highlights of a master’s final decade

2. Second Sacred Concert (Fantasy, 1968)

“I regard this concert as the most important thing I have ever done,” proclaimed Ellington at the end of his life. The debate over the relative importance of his works will never end, but Second Sacred Concert is unquestionably the most ambitious of the three Concerts of Sacred Music, and indeed one of the most ambitious works in all of Ellingtonia. Its 155-minute corpus extends his orchestra to 22 pieces (including vocalists), then adds four full choirs. As one might imagine, it’s highly driven by lyrics—some of them bypassing the choral multitudes for the singular person of the operatic Swedish vocalist Alice Babs (an Ellington discovery). The choirs get “Supreme Being,” in which Ellington unveils a new technique: spoken (or at least unpitched) but nonetheless melodic recitative that functions like incantation. You can also hear it on “Something About Believing,” which introduces the electric piano into his band’s sonic palette. That electric piano merges with Babs on the wordless “T.G.T.T.,” which both harks back to the early days of “Creole Love Call” and blazes a new path with its through-composed melody. And all of this is done with tremendous sonority that was clearly designed to be heard in the cavernous churches in which it was performed, adding yet another layer to Ellington’s genius. (Note: The CD and streaming versions of Second Sacred Concert omit two tracks that were released on the original vinyl edition.)

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.