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Jessye Norman Got That Swing

Photo of Jessye Norman by Carol FriedmanWhat is Jessye Norman up to these days, you ask? She is appearing at a lot of gala performances, doing the beloved past superstar thing. To be sure, it is no longer the voice we knew and loved when, in the just re-released Four Last Songs, for example. Even so, the chance to hear and watch this inimitable soprano one more time is hard to pass up, so we were happy to be in the sold-out house for her season opening concert at the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night. True, it was Duke Ellington instead of Strauss, but La Norman has certainly earned a little indulgence for her eccentricities. In general, opera singers making mediocre jazz is about as disastrous as pop stars attempting opera. There were cringe-worthy moments, but the combination of singer and composer just might be a natural choice for a Barack Obama inauguration, if that comes to pass.

The first half was drawn from Sacred Ellington, a staging of some of Duke Ellington's sacred songs (which she will perform complete at St. John the Divine in the spring). The program did not credit an arranger of these pieces by Duke Ellington or give source information about them (most were drawn from the three Sacred Concerts Ellington gave later in his career). The range of styles in the arrangements was broad. David Danced before the Lord (without the solo composed by Ellington for tap dancer Bunny Brice) featured only Norman's voice, amplified from off stage, and the earthy tenor sax of Bill Easley. In In the Beginning God, which won Ellington a Grammy for Best Jazz Composition in 1966, Norman recited a list of things that were not when God was in eternity -- no conference calls, no applause, no critique, no amateurs, no professionals. More pleasing were Come Sunday, a slow-ballad plea for God's help, and the bouncy, straightforward, one-word Hallelujah.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Jessye Norman, Still a Diva Beyond the Classical Canon (Washington Post, September 15)
The microphone was a necessary evil for Norman's present voice to compete with the talented jazz quartet, reduced from Ellington's own big-band orchestra in scope, and the amplification caused several infelicities of Norman's performance to be heard much more clearly than otherwise. One sometimes had the impression of Norman reining in what is left to get a sound appropriate for amplification. She may not have a second career as a torch singer, or in scat singing if Heaven was any indication. Still, there was a certain amount of comfort in watching Jessye Norman try on standards like Sophisticated Lady (almost a beat parody of itself), I've Got It Bad (attractively gentle and bluesy), and In My Solitude (finally, she put the mike down). It was not an embarrassment, and Jessye, having lost an incredible amount of weight, is looking good.

Photo of Jessye Norman by Carol Friedman, courtesy of Clarice Smith Center

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