Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: Sacred Music of Duke Ellington

Before this review delves into the overarching aesthetic issues with which we critics so like to concern ourselves, I should note that the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra’s two-CD compilation of pieces from Duke Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts provides solid performances of mostly remarkable music. The Oregon Repertory Singers sound especially good under their conductor, Gil Seeley, delivering an exquisitely textured account of Duke’s a capella setting of the Lord’s Prayer.

Now then, apart from that setting of the Lord’s Prayer, Ellington’s sacred music sounds little different from his secular. Occasional gospel influences crop up, but jazz supplies the rhythms, colors and melodies, and overt evidence of hipness shows itself in “In the Beginning, Lord,” which features a long list of modern creature comforts not in evidence when there was only the Word. Of course the music rouses and entertains, but it may not fully engage those who favor a more contemplative approach to God. (Also, the “Freedom Suite,” with its obsessive repetition of the title word, sounds like a swingin’ Fox News to modern ears.)

Of course, Ellington’s band could exalt anything he wrote, and recordings of the unmatchable original performances are still available. So what can a group like the SRJO bring to the table? Better sound, for one, although the tap dancer should be mixed down so that the chorus can be heard in “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might.” More important, they bring palpable enthusiasm to each note they play, so that even when a little roughness intrudes, you’re carried along by the joy in the music and the performances. In music devoted to the glory of God, it’s always good when groups besides the original performers can join in delivering the praise, and the SRJO makes a fine celebration from Ellington’s music.