Although the first concert of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center's Duke Ellington Jazz Series is in a theater Friday night, the Kentucky Jazz Repertory Orchestra and the American Spiritual Ensemble will be taking Sir Duke to church.
The inaugural installment of the series of three to five concerts this year will focus on church music Ellington wrote for three special performances: in 1962 at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, in 1968 at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and in 1973 at London's Westminster Abbey.
"The music is really different," say Jazz Repertory Orchestra co-director Richard Domek, who has worked on Ellington's music for the Smithsonian Institution. "One author described it as show business meets the liturgy, and it kind of is, because it's got certainly entertaining elements that are part of it, but it's all in the service of worship. Some of it is joyful worship, some of it is very contemplative and meditative.
"But it's not the usual Ellington sort of music. There's probably more blues and even some gospel coming into this music that you usually don't hear."
The series kicks off with sacred music due to timing. A lot of the music is choral, so these concerts will incorporate the American Spiritual Ensemble, which usually is together in February to tour for Black History Month.
The ensemble's leader, University of Kentucky Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey, says it has performed Ellington's sacred music while touring in Spain and looks forward to presenting the music again.
"That's when I really fell in love with it, because it's such a spectacular piece," McCorvey says. "But it's not performed very much in this country. I'm hoping we can make this music a regular part of our repertory because it's so suited to what we do."
Ellington's music also is naturally suited to what the Jazz Repertory Orchestra does. The orchestra was formed to present Ellington's music in 1999, the centennial of his birth.
"When we play the music of Ellington, I get to be Johnny Hodges, who was one of my biggest influences," saxophonist and orchestra co-director Miles Osland says.
And the orchestra will get to stay on that beat: There are two more concerts in the works for May and September. Specifics are being worked out, but there is a general idea of where the shows are going.
"They won't be as heavily vocal-oriented as this concert, though there will be vocal pieces," Osland says. "The repertoire will be more of the Ellington music from the 1940s and '50s, and even transcriptions Dick has done."