The Grace Chorale. Photo credit: David Behl

The Grace Chorale. Photo credit: David Behl

The Grace Chorale of Brooklyn will return to St. Ann & the Holy Trinity next weekend, April 29-May 1, to present jazz legend Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, a rarely performed but highly regarded set of improvisational music.

The first of these three performance concerts will be held on Ellington’s birthday, April 29. He was born in 1899 in Washington, D.C.

Ellington, at the age of 66, premiered the first of three Sacred Concerts that he would compose during the last decade of his life. This first concert, titled “A Concert of Sacred Music,” premiered at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965. Two more concerts, “Second Sacred Concert” and “Third Sacred Concert,” premiered in 1968 in New York City, and in 1978 in London, respectively. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the legendary jazz musician toured the world performing what he called Sacred Concerts; wherever Ellington performed, he would collaborate with local choirs.

At the time, Richard S. Ginell’s review (accessible via Allmusic’s website) awarded the album five stars and stated that “the concert taps into Ellington’s roots in showbiz and African-American culture as well as his evidently deep religious faith, throwing it all together in the spirit of universality and sealing everything with the stamps of his musical signatures.” Ginell also noted that the Sacred Concerts proved controversial, with religious conservatives feeling scandalized at what they deemed a syncretistic blending of faith with jazz. Yet, different peoples have always found ways to express their faith in the music of their respective cultures.

Likewise, Ebony magazine praised the Sacred Concerts as “historic,” landmarking this work as part of a larger movement in the mid-60s that married jazz and religion.

No definitive score of the Sacred Concerts was published during Ellington’s lifetime. However, in 1993, the Danish choral composer and conductor John Høybye, working with jazz composer Peder Pedersen, produced a composite version of “Sacred Music,” comprised of selected music from the original three concerts. The Høybye-Pedersen version, published in 1997, elevates the chorus as an equal partner with the band.

Grace Chorale, with music director Jason Asbury conducting, will perform the Hoybye-Pedersen version, which follows the spirit of the original music.

Accompanying the choral ensemble will be some of Brooklyn’s best talent, including Brooklyn Contemporary Chorus (Aaron Williams, conductor); a 16-piece jazz band (Matt Podd, Band Leader); jazz singer Tulivu; and dancers from Jamal Jackson’s nationally recognized dance company JJDC. Works will include “Come Sunday” and “David Danced,” which features an up-and-coming tap dancer Dario Natarelli.

The Jamal Jackson Dance Company will be performing in the Friday and Sunday performances at St. Ann’s.

Grace Chorale of Brooklyn, a community chorus of 80 members, is in its 39th season. The Chorale performs both traditional and innovative musical programs from Mozart and Beethoven to Leonard Bernstein and Gershwin, as well as lesser-known choral works from early music to contemporary composers. Deriving joy from its commissioning program, the Grace Chorale for nearly a decade has commissioned a wide variety of choral works by talented New York City composers as part of our mission to support living composers and expand the choral repertoire of the 21st century. The Chorale values its collaboration with them and the wonderful opportunity to breathe life into the work they compose for us.

The first performance at St. Ann’s begins at 7 p.m. The church’s address is 157 Montague St. Sacred Concerts will be performed at New Dorp Moravian Church on Staten Island on Saturday, April 30. The performance on Sunday, May 1, back at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, begins at 3 p.m.

The entrance to the church is on Clinton Street at the corner of Montague Street. Tickets are available at either venue, or via www.gracechorale.org.

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