Blaring brass from an 16-piece big band opened Duke Ellington’s “A Sacred Concert” at Trinity Church, Copley Square on Sunday evening. Beginning with an instrumental overture, the Vespers-style concert proceeded, re-animating Ellington’s jazzy spirituality.
Trinity Church’s choir collaborated with the Berkeley College of Music’s Greg Hopkins and his jazz orchestra, featuring soloists Renese King (alto), Dominique Eade (soprano), Daon Drisdom (baritone), and Thomas DeFrantz (dancer). Throughout the performance, Ellington’s sacred big band and choir music embraced Psalms, short speeches, and an offering. Ellington performed sacred concerts: in 1965, in 1968 (which was not captured live), and in 1973, just a few months before his death.
Soloists and conductor positioned themselves on the sanctuary floor, in front of the band, which played from the steps leading from the nave to the chancel. Beginning with the woodwinds, the players rose stepwise to the highest level—drums and bassist at the rear. Nearly 100 singers almost overflowed the choir stalls. The church’s eagle lectern allowed speakers to address the audience with clear visibility.
Greg Hopkins and his band, unified in spirit and harmony, created a perfect sonic landscape for the soloists to shine. Not only did they render impeccable support, but they also delivered their own solos with a captivating freshness and fearlessness that became memorable highlights.
Trinity Church’s Director of Music Colin Lynch’s choir and choristers took on highlighting roles in Will You Be There and Father Forgive, both of which strikingly contrasted with the energetic big-band numbers. The choir’s slow, harmonious delivery added a touch of refinement and grace to the evening and provided the pleasure of the church’s natural acoustic in a mostly otherwise amplified concert.
Renese King provided soulful vocals in Come Sunday and Tell Me It’s the Truth. In the opening number, following the overture, King’s meticulous phrasing and soul-stirring delivery entranced. Her voice, at times intentionally raspy and at times fully and clearly resonant, awoke the hearts of each listener and touched us to the core. She projected every word clearly and her every phrase led seamlessly to the next. A tearful opening―pure, sincere, sweet and otherworldly—immediately earned a standing ovation and deservedly so. In Tell Me It’s the truth, King’s preaching again enlightened us spiritually, moving us deeply.
Daon Drisdom showcased his vocals in Ain’t But the One, In the Beginning of God, and Something ‘Bout Believing. The repetitive chant-like melody and complex rhythm of Ain’t But the One, coupled with the hard-to-feel choir entrances, left the tune unconvincing. The lack of focus on the voices, possibly due to the acoustics and microphone, made the music loose and occasionally lost us. The final slow chords nevertheless exploded harmoniously.
During In the Beginning of God, Brian Landrus’s impressive solo on the baritone saxophone created the perfect musical space. As Drisdom began the list of “no” under the groovy rhythm section and George Russell’s comping, it disappointed us that the lyrics came across without clarity from the reviewer’s seat. Towards the end, Ron Savage’s thundering two-minute drum solo, which signified the beginning of everything, followed by the triumphant choir’s polychord stacking with the band and resolving in harmony, ended the piece on high spirit.
Dominique Eade soloed in Heaven and Almighty God. Backed by the band, Eade made Heaven her own. Her interpretation was personal, her presence charismatic, and the musical phrases absolutely fit her distinctive style. Ellington’s dissonant and eerie major sevenths became aromatic, while the unsettling tritones sank into the band and rose into the grandeur of the sanctuary, keeping the listeners intently attuned. Complementing Eade’s style, Shannon Leclaire’s (Alto Sax) statement of Heaven were intoxicatingly nuanced and bewitchingly trancelike. In Almighty God, Eade’s enchanting style again distinguished her, as her spare but meaningful improvisations rode the rhythmic waves of the band and floated freely above the belting choir, creating different layers of sound through register and timber.
In David Danced, dancer Thomas DeFrantz tapped his heels and toes in delivering one of the afternoon’s most memorable moments. Duke Ellington once described Bunny Briggs, the tap dancer in the premiere, as “super-leviathanically syncopated,” and DeFrantz’s impressed us no less. His hair swung fashionably back and forth as he executed gracious hand movements, surpassed only by the highly electrical, restless, and breathtaking sound of his tap shoes. Hopkins and the band deserve credit for creating a perfect balance that allowed the rhythm of the shoes to star. The timbre of Savage’s hi-hats, which coincided perfectly with DeFrantz’s shoes, added another layer of satisfaction, and provided yet another highlight within this number.
George Russell (Piano) artistically soloed in An Ellington Reflection, displaying mastery over rhythm, and ingeniously commanding in harmony. While the solo paid homage to Ellington, Russell’s personal style shone through. He used stride piano, high and low clusters, and expertly controlled dynamics, to create a seemingly through-composed yet mysteriously unpredictable episodes. Ellington’s hit tunes Sophisticated Lady and In a Sentimental Mood made brief appearances.
The evening came to a close with the triumphant Praise God and Dance, as every soloist and dancer returned to the center of the band to join the big ensemble in a joyous celebration of music and movement. We’ll never forget Drisdom’s fully resonant solo. Hopkins appeared to have cued the soloists on the spot for unrehearsed improvisatory passages, resulting in a freer form and an even more thrilling performance. The vocal trio’s exuberant scatting and DeFrantz’s final dance solo raised the already electrifying atmosphere, sending a packed Trinity Church into the night with our hearts full and spirits lifted.