Guildhall Jazz Singers: Ellington’s Second Sacred at Milton Court Concert Hall
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is a world-renowned conservatoire that has tutored the world’s brightest prodigies for over a century. Tonight, the Guildhall Jazz Singers tackle pieces from Duke Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert.
Ellington wrote his paean to religion late in his life while ruminating on the death of close friend and writing partner Billy Strayhorn. Far from being morbid, the music reflects and celebrates life in his imitable big band style that, when filtered through his unwavering love of God, makes for a spiritual experience regardless of your beliefs.
The choir is led by resident professor Scott Stroman, a charismatic American who draws out the best in his students. His relaxed persona sets the tone for a thoroughly enjoyable evening as he urges the audience to forget their inhibitions, which are usually magnified in a grandiose setting like Milton Court Concert Hall. He allows students their chance to shine and build confidence, often putting them on the spot to create genuine improvisation. For the majority of the concert he proudly sits and watches as recent graduate Flora Medlicott conducts the choir and streamlined big band without a blip. The band are sickeningly talented for their age and provide exemplary support for the few dozen singers who each have a chance to solo and scat throughout the concert.
Ellington was able to stretch his writing into opera for the Sacred series, thanks to a chance meeting with Swedish classical vocalist Alice Babs; her vocal dexterity on Heaven is a feat that deserves its namesake. So, when Ines Franco replicates her acrobatics with such ease you realise just how world class these young musicians are. A virtuoso pianist, Ellington channelled his love of Chopin into short sonatas such as Meditation, confidently played by pianist Joe Hill – further evidence that they deserve this accolade.
As well as using horn lines for vocals and generally swapping charts in the great jazz tradition, Stroman has taken existing melodies and fleshed them out. To hear a choir at the forefront of this music is reminiscent of certain Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders pieces with similar esoteric and deeply moving harmonies.
The concert culminates with Praise God and Dance, which is a technical triumph with soul. For the encore, the audience is treated to a rendition of Come Sunday from the first sacred concert before leaving the hall trance-like and infused with some ole time religion.
Photos: Erol Birsen
Guildhall Jazz Singers: Ellington’s Second Sacred was a one-off event at Milton Court Concert Hall, for further information about future events visit here.