Wednesday, June 28, 2017
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Big group, big sound, big ideas

It may very well be the biggest single jazz project ever staged in Ottawa.

When the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra (IJO) gets on stage Saturday night, along with the Capital Vox jazz choir, several soloists, and a tap dancer, there will be almost 50 artists performing Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts.

Impressions In Jazz Orchestra

It's not something you throw together in a few weeks. IJO artistic director Adrian Cho said he's been thinking about this concert for probably five years - even before IJO existed. And it's been about a year since he contacted Capital Vox's director, Elise Letourneau.

So what makes this music worth that effort? "Ellington judged the music of his sacred concerts to be the most important thing he ever did.  He poured his heart and soul into it and it really shows," Cho says.

Adrian Cho conducting IJO at Dominion-Chalmers United Church - ©2009 Brett Delmage

It's also not your standard over-familiar church music. "Ellington's interpretation of liturgy is fascinating.  He employs a tap dancer for "David Danced (Before the Lord)" and only he could have made a bossa nova sound so right (and so sublime) in a sacred setting. Stylistically the music covers so much ground with elements of classical, jazz and gospel and even Broadway-style music."

This music will move people, Cho says. "If you can listen to this and not find yourself moving a part of your body then as they say, perhaps you'd better check your pulse.  Music students will find a lot to listen for in this music as is the case with all of Ellington's major works. Beyond that however, I think all young (and older) people will be fascinated by this music when they consider the context in which it was written.  Specifically, Ellington was an African-American musician and lived through the Civil Rights movement and the music reflects that."

Marcus Nance, IJO's One of the featured soloists will be bass-baritone Marcus Nance, who sang  with IJO in 2006. "Marcus had a wonderful time performing with us and jumped at the opportunity to come back.  Likewise we were all amazed by his talent and I was looking for any excuse to get him back. The idea of pairing him with [soprano] Doreen-Taylor Claxton was even more thrilling," Cho said.

Letourneau will sing two alto solos, both gospel-influenced, in the concert. She will also be scatting in the middle of the tap dancing. She said that for her and Capital Vox to work with the IJO was a "wonderful challenge. It's so cool to hear all the different parts."

Elise Letourneau, One of the biggest stretches for Capital Vox, Letourneau said, was that the vocal range of this music was wider than their usual repertoire. "There's a lot more high notes that the choir needs to be reaching. It is more of a repertory work and it seems to me he was writing for vocalists not only of a different era but also of a different style. Because Capital Vox is a jazz choir, it has attracted a lot of women with lower ranges and so we've had to work a lot with the sopranos as well as with the tenors."

And singing with a 15-piece orchestra has its own issues. "It's a big sound that you're competing with, and you really have to make sure you get your sound out there."

This concert will also require the choir to follow Ellington's intent very closely – unlike in other Capital Vox concerts, where Letourneau has been able to rearrange the music to fit the choir. "With this one, we're being a lot more true to the score. I'm just not going to second-guess Ellington. It's not for me to do."

The concert will be a "best of" selection from the three sacred concerts Ellington wrote. Cho said the music contains much variety: " The different styles - jazz, blues, gospel, classical, etc. are obvious but Ellington's writing is so unique - his sound palette and his harmony.  It has been interesting for me to hear live in the rehearsals, so many things in the harmony that I never, ever heard on the recordings.  The writing in this music is full of suspense, drama and excitement of biblical proportions given the forces we have available and there are many transitions in tempo, character, [and] groove."

He said he hoped the music would appeal to a larger audience. "I am worried and would be saddened to think that people would pass on this because it is "sacred music."  This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear this music live and I think it's pretty damn cool that we'll have all these local artists doing it."

(Full disclosure: OJS publisher Brett Delmage is paid for photographing IJO and Capital Vox concerts. You can see some of his IJO photographs here)

- Alayne McGregor

The Impressions in Jazz Orchestra and Capital Vox will perform Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts on Saturday, March 27 at Dominion Chalmers Unired Church. Full listing here.