Just came from an extraordinary concert at the Sheldonian Theatre in which the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford performed a version of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, with two pieces from composer and baritone Roderick Williams' Oxford Blues Service inserted in the Sacred Concert running order. This constituted the second half of the program; I'll perhaps write in another post about the first half, which featured many good things but a sound balance that was slightly problematic at times, with the band occasionally drowning out the excellent guest soloist, alto saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock. (I can't allude to the first half, though, without mentioning the really superb singing of first-year Olivia Williams in "Lookin' Back" and "Feelin' Good".) In the second half, the balance was suddenly almost perfect, the bass acoustic throughout, the swing consistent and unforced, and immediately with the meditative baritone saxophone solo, originally performed by Harry Carney, that introduces "In the Beginning God" we were immersed in Duke Ellington's world of sound and his personal take on religion and spirituality. Besides the excellence of the band, choir, and soloists, the conducting and preparation of the musicians by Schola conductor James Burton was clearly crucial to the success of this performance. Nigel Hitchcock's beautiful alto playing was another crucial ingredient, but the regular band members who played key solos, like the baritone sax in "In the Beginning", the clarinet in "Freedom", the plunger-muted trumpet in "The Shepherd" did themselves and the Duke proud as well. The Roderick Williams pieces "Gray Skies Passing Over" and "The Lord's Prayer" fit in perfectly, being in a somewhat harmonically lush jazz-to-mid-twentieth-century pop vocal style very similar to parts of the Ellington vocal score, but more contrapuntal, with, I think, an echo of English, and even perhaps Renaissance, church music.
Besides getting real swing from the ensemble, Burton kept things relaxed but accurate, with a real dynamic range, the band in balance with the soloists (Ellington's writing presumably helps here too), expressive phrasing and control over the pace and development of each piece. "Freedom" was another standout, done with intense feeling and great energy, drawing roars of approval from the audience. But all the movements were executed superbly, and there were many such moments. The tap-dancing of Annette Walker, in "David Danced Before The Lord" was another highlight.
This was an utterly professional-sounding performance that felt infused with the passion of people who are together reaching a level they may or may not have reached before, in the zone, giving the audience a musical experience not to be forgotten. The Sacred Concerts may be a work best experienced live---it was certainly immensely effective, enjoyable, powerful, and moving in this performance. Bass player and alto Lila Chrisp who is in both groups apparently had the idea that they should join forces in this piece. I'm very grateful to everyone involved for making this happen and really filling the Sheldonian with the spirit---especially the spirit of Duke Ellington and his band.