In his recent book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, notes these strong words from Duke Ellington: "To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparisons with classical music is to deny him his rightful share of originality."
Despite Ellington's reservations about such comparisons, the legendary composer and bandleader was among those leading the way in exploring the nexus of the two genres. Beginning in 1943 with the Carnegie Hall premiere of Black, Brown, and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro, Ellington embarked on a series of large-scale works that considerably expanded the form, duration and instrumentation associated with jazz.
In Ellington's final decade, these genre-defying projects culminated in the three Sacred Concerts, which premiered in 1965, 1968 and 1973. As New York Times critic Jon Pareles has written, "The works are comprised of songs and suites based on [Ellington's] own texts, juxtaposing celebratory gospel music, his own unsurpassed tunefulness and the reverential tone of European liturgical music."
Ellington and his band toured the United States and Europe with these revues in full-fledged productions that included dancers, choirs and gospel soloists.
Opportunities to hear Ellington's Sacred Concerts are few, so a local performance is a significant occasion. At 3 p.m. Sunday, Columbia Pro Cantare, directed by Frances Motyca Dawson, will be joined by the Eric Mintel Quartet and soprano Vikki Jones in selections from the Sacred Concerts at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3604 Chatham Road, Ellicott City.
Pianist Mintel first appeared with Columbia Pro Cantare in 2005, performing the sacred music of another jazz master, Dave Brubeck. Mintel has appeared frequently at the Kennedy Center, and he has performed at the White House. The Eric Mintel Quartet, which includes saxophonist Nelson Hill, bassist Dave Antonow and drummer Dave Mohn, recently performed at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York and is touring behind its new album, Times Change.
Soprano Vikki Jones, a Maryland native praised by The Sun for her "rich and warm sound" and "brilliant coloratura," has performed with the Baltimore Opera Company, Opera North of Philadelphia, the Maryland Lyric Opera and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She has toured as a soloist with the National Spiritual Ensemble. In 2000, Jones won the Leontyne Price Vocal Arts Competition.
Ellington's Sacred Concerts represent more than a synthesis of musical idioms, or of sacred and secular art. They are, above all, statements of faith. Ellington viewed the expression of his spiritual ideals through music as a watershed moment in his creative life. As biographer Derek Jewell notes, Ellington concluded that "this music is the most important thing I've ever done or am ever likely to do. This is personal, not career. Now I can say out loud to all the world what I've been saying to myself for years on my knees."
Advance ticket prices are $20 for adults, $18 for senior citizens and students. Prices at the door are $22 and $20. Information: 301-854-0107 or 410-799-9321, or www.procantare.org.