BBC Proms 2019: Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music

Alice Babs, Devonne Gardner, Roscoe Gill, Trish Turner and Tony Watkins at the 1968 recording of the Second Sacred Concert. Photo by Patricia Willard

“The most important thing I’ve ever done” were the words Duke Ellington used to describe his three Sacred Concerts, written and recorded in the years between 1965 and 1973 – some of the final works that Ellington would produce before his death in 1974. With this in mind, paying homage to the Sacred Concerts within a single concert is a big task for anyone wanting to do justice to the pianist and composer.

‘…some very good musicians and singers … But given the significance with which Ellington regarded his sacred music, it fell short of the mark – far from “the most important thing” in this year’s Proms’

The Nu Civilisation Orchestra, conducted by Peter Edwards, made their Proms debut with their programme of selected pieces from the sacred concerts. Joining them were the BBC Singers, Carleen Anderson and the UK Vocal Assembly, and veteran jazz pianist Monty Alexander. 

The Sacred Concerts are a unique blend of big-band jazz, gospel, and Broadway styles that only Ellington could have written. Though they are a relatively small band, the Nu Civilisation Orchestra are more than capable of producing the big energetic sound that the style demands and there were a few standout solos that were enjoyable, particularly the solemn baritone saxophone melody that opened In The Beginning God, and the tenor sax solos when the performance transitioned into a more upbeat swing.

Together, the BBC Singers and the UK Vocal Assembly delivered on a range of styles – from sacred choral to soulful gospel with clapping along encouraged; a risky move for even the smallest of audiences, let alone that of the Royal Albert Hall. But much of the vocals, although proficient, lacked in power and volume – perhaps a sound-tech issue, perhaps due to the nature of a concert hall of such size – and the soloists were often drowned out by the band, as was the percussive accompaniment of talented tap dancer Annette Walker, who took centre stage for just two pieces.

It is also worth noting a misleading statement in the programme: Monty Alexander, who had met the Duke personally, was placed at the top of the bill as that concert’s pianist. In reality, though, Alexander only appeared towards the end of the night for the last few pieces – one of which was a great solo piano medley of Ellington favourites including Satin Doll and Take The ‘A’ Train. Filling in on piano for the rest of the concert was Peter Edwards, who would excitedly flit between the piano and his conductor’s stand. Those in the audience who had been looking forward to seeing Alexander perform would surely have been bitterly disappointed by his scarcity for the majority of the concert.

The Royal Albert Hall was host to some very good musicians and singers for this concert. But given the significance with which Ellington regarded his sacred music, it fell short of the mark – far from “the most important thing” in this year’s Proms.

Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music, Prom 54, 29 August 2019, Royal Albert Hall, London