Anu Komsi Sings Duke Ellington


SACRED CONCERT / ELLINGTON: Praise. Heaven. Freedom. The Majesty of God. Freedom is a Word. David Danced. Almighty God. Freedom is Sweet. Freedom Spoken in Different Languages. Praise God and Dance – Finale / Anu Komsi, sop; Marzi Nyman, org/voc / Alba ABCD 450

As John Cleese used to say, “And now for something completely different.” Here is classical coloratura soprano Anu Komsi singing the sacred music of Duke Ellington, drawn from all three of his famed Sacred Concerts of the period 1966-1970. Most of the music here was originally sung by the multi-talented Swedish soprano and jazz artist Alice Babs (see my appreciation of her HERE), but a few pieces were originally sung by others in the cast.

Perhaps realizing that no modern orchestra, no matter how well-intentioned, is going to come close to sounding like Duke Ellington’s. she chose to record this album with classical and jazz organist Marzi Nyman. This, of course, also brings the material on this album more in line with sacred music one would normally hear in a church in addition to letting us hear just how good Nyman is playing jazz accompaniments on a full-sized pipe organ.

As someone who grew up with the Ellington-Babs recordings, these performances make an interesting contrast. Perhaps most interestingly, despite Komsi’s well-deserved reputation as a major “coloratura” soprano, her high range is not quite as free and easy-sounding as Babs’, but her low range is much richer and more “settled.” Since Babs had been singing American jazz and popular songs in English since she was 15 years old, her English diction, although very slightly accented, was perfectly clear and acceptable to American ears whereas Komsi sounds a bit more foreign (the words “ultimate degree” emerge as “el-timate degg-rrree”). In some of the tracks, such as Heaven, Nyman sings along with her, and though his voice is clearly not a trained one he swings a bit more easily. But by and large, this disc is quite enjoyable—dig the extra cadenza that Komsi throws into Heaven—and in addition to her vocal pyrotechnics it gives us a chance to hear Nyman’s very fine improvisations.

In the first version of Freedom, Komsi has multi-tracked her voice to create a virtual choir, out of which her solo voice rises in some upper-extended cadenzas, and Nyman doesn’t play on this track.

Yet what makes the album work is Komsi’s unquestioned sincerity and seriousness of delivery. She does not take this music lightly, but gives it everything she has. On Freedom is Sweet Nyman doesn’t play the organ at all, but sings behind her as a rhythmic accompaniment, “playing” his voice the way Bobby McFerrin did.

Praise God and Dance is the album’s finale and climax, just as it was in Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert. Nyman opens with a long, extempore organ solo, somewhat more classical than one might expect, before Komsi enters around the four-minute mark to recreate Babs’ famous solo. I don’t think I missed the Ellington orchestra as much as I missed the Ellington rhythm section. I think that adding a bassist and drummer to this selection would have helped, though it would clearly have changed the effect of just voice and organ—although both Komsi and Nyman use some wild electronic effects to place her voice (and some of his playing) in a distant echo chamber, and some hand-clapping is heard as well. Nyman also multi-tracks his voice to create a backup chorus to some of Komsi’s extempore cadenzas.

It’s a strange and enjoyable album for what it is, but for me I’m not sure it’s a keeper. As sincere as Komsi’s homage to Ellington and Babs is, it doesn’t really equal or surpass the original recordings.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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