2-19-2008: VocalEssence celebrates Duke Ellington in a first-rate “Witness” program
Lesser-known works give a more complete view of the famed composer’s wide-ranging talent.
By WILLIAM RANDALL BEARD, Special to the Star Tribune
For 18 years, VocalEssence’s annual Witness concerts have celebrated the work of African-American composers. This year’s edition, seen Sunday afternoon at the Ordway, was titled "The Duke Ellington Effect" and turned out to be a first-rate entertainment.
The second half presented Ellington’s music in the context of a live radio broadcast. Vern Sutton’s script captured a sense of the period, but the warm nostalgia was spoiled by corny jokes and a running gag involving an inept reporter that grew old fast.
The musical performances, however, were stellar. Pianist Sanford Moore played the master of ceremonies with real style, and a 15-piece combo masterfully recreated the big-band sound. No one in town is more proficient at this kind of music than Moore, and he accompanied with real style and soul.
Baritone Dennis Spears gave a dazzling rendition of "It Don’t Mean a Thing," including some amazing scat singing. His performances with the VocalEssence Chorus were exemplary throughout.
With "Take the A Train," the chorus proved that they really know how to swing. But they also demonstrated a sweet sound with the a cappella "Come Sunday," arranged by Moore.
Of particular interest were the less familiar works, excerpts from Ellington’s "Sacred Concerts," combining elements of jazz, classical music, spirituals, gospel and blues. These extended movements, some more than 10 minutes long, can only enhance his reputation as a serious composer.
The first half of the program explored the effect that Ellington has had on later African-American composers, including the world premiere of "Deep Like the Rivers" by local composer William C. Banfield, written expressly for the occasion. The most conspicuously classical of the pieces, its complex harmonies never lost their emotional connection to the Langston Hughes poem.
Other highlights included "I Was Glad" by Gary Powell Nash, a unique blend of jazz and hymnody, and "Hallelujah! I’m Going to Praise His Name!," a joyously syncopated gospel arrangement by Robert L. Morris. It was a treat to be exposed to this unfamiliar material.
An abbreviated version of the radio show will be repeated Sunday at Hopkins High School using members of the Augsburg Jazz Ensemble in place of the professional orchestra.
William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis writer.