Duke Ellington's concept of liturgical music encompassed instrumental ensemble, solo and choral voices and dance. The all-Washington production of selections from his three "Sacred Concerts" at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church last night would have made him proud, and it should fill his native city with pride as well.
The two years of hard work that Carl Grubbs has put into the D.C. Jazz Workshop Orchestra paid off in a program that often captured the Ellington sound with such signatures as unison muted brass and clarinets balanced with saxophones.
There were some splendid solos, including several by Grubbs on alto sax, some stratospheric notes by Malachi Thompson and an extended drum statement by Eric Allen on "In the Beginning God," which built from a dawn-quiet press roll to heaven-shaking thunder.
Annette Poulard sang wordless sounds on "T.G.T.T." and other selections in a breathtaking soprano that surely Ellington would have enjoyed writing for.
The five-voice choir took a gospel turn on "The Lord's Prayer" that had the pews rocking. Jimmy McPhail's voice, one that should be heard more widely, was majestic on "Come Sunday" and on a stately "Is God a Three Letter Word for Love."
The flying feet of tap dancer Johne Forges had the congregation gasping on "David Danced" and the D.C. Contemporary Dance Theater concluded its spirited offering by depicting the birth of a child.