Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., to musical parents and started taking piano lessons at age 7. His early, dapper dress and mannerisms earned him the nickname "Duke," and his growing musical sophistication earned his band a regular spot at Harlem's Cotton Club.
But it was during the last 10 years of his life that he composed music that he called "the most important thing I've done" a series of three "Sacred Concerts," combining Christian liturgy with jazz and text by Ellington.
Brady Allred and the Salt Lake Choral Artists, along with Caleb Chapman's Crescent Super Band, played an arrangement by John Høybye and Peder Pedersen, culling 10 selections from the three "Concerts," and giving the choir extended harmony and depth on par with the accompanying band. The Saturday evening concert was performed with an infectious mix of well-honed technique and unbridled enthusiasm. The same concert was also presented as a Saturday matinee.
The performance at the University of Utah's Libby Gardner Concert Hall featured soprano Jennifer Madsen's impressive vocals, tap dancer Jon Scott adding his rhythmic feet to the swinging band and numerous solo turns by band members, especially during the work's "Freedom-suite" section.
Trent Reimschussel's soprano and alto sax solos were driven with melodic purpose. Tony Elison's turn at the ivories invoked the "Duke's" meticulous finger work. Jacob White's quick fingers and range reached dizzying heights on tenor sax. Nate Campbell's bone solos showed soulful mellowness while Tyler Webb's big personality showed through his trumpet playing during a burlesque-inspired section that had him playing dirty licks with a plunger mute.
The piece ended with Madsen's stylized scat-singing and the driving finale, "Praise God and Dance."
The combined concert and chamber choirs opened with the American premiere of German composer Wolfram Buchenberg's "Gloria." Buchenberg's affinity for the voice was apparent during the opening plain-chant section with baritone soloist Tyler Oliphant.
But then, in a departure from the 52-year-old composer's typical classical compositional style, the band kicked into a driving rock beat with the choir singing the nativity text, "Glory to God in the highest." The work showed the composer's signature, engaging harmonic depth.
The concert also included sets by the Women's Choir, directed by Jane Fjeldsted and the new Youth Honor Choir, directed by Allred. All sang Big Band-era tunes, mostly by Ellington, except the Honor Choir which performed an Ellington sacred arrangement of "The Lord's Prayer" and a spiritual.
The Young Choral Artists, led by Kiersten Honaker, Hillary Emmer and Nancy Hopkin, capably accompanied on the piano by Clifford W. King, sang a compelling pre-concert performance, showing clean diction, accurate pitch and joyful music making.
The Crescent band also performed without the choirs. This group of 14- to 18-year-old high school students brought down the house with their rendition of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing," with the band standing at the end, horns swinging and reaching for the sky.
Allred seems to have a good sense, not only of what is musically tasteful and aesthetically pleasing, but also for what his audience wants to hear. This concert brought an energy to the stage that was not only well-rehearsed but fun.
We always knew the ensemble knew how to perform the "legit" literature, but who knew the choral artists could swing?