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Louie Bellson: The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and the Jazz Ballet

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With the impulse among Baptists (at least, the Southern wing I know) to water down the music for worship services these days, it’s bracing to hear a revival of some good old orchestral and choral fire and brimstone (not leaving out the love component, of course) with this album. Like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck before him, Bellson takes a grand approach to expressing his Christian faith. The drummer, who played on Ellington’s Sacred Concerts in 1965, recorded this album in 2000 using faculty and students from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music Studio Jazz Band, Symphony String Orchestra and Choir.

The 14-part “Sacred Music” ranges from bombastic opener “Lightning and Thunder” to the spine-tingling majesty of “No One But God” and the swinging big band grooves of “He’s the Lord” and “New Lou.” There are vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Hi-Lo’s and the Four Freshmen along the way, along with pure-toned soloists in the classical tradition bringing Bellson’s lyrics to life. Precise, crisp, springy solos by the drummer pop up here and there, a reminder of his swing-era tours and recordings with the big bands of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and others.

Bellson’s four-part “The Jazz Ballet,” subtitled “Marriage Vows,” premiered in 1962 at the Las Vegas Jazz Festival with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as the featured soloist. Here, the lyrical and swinging Bobby Shew takes over. The arrangements reflect a stricter jazz orientation than “Sacred Music” and occasionally suggest some of the ’60s concert writing of Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans and Gary McFarland, among others.