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December 18, 2014 at 3:28 PM

Stephen Newby spreads Duke Ellington’s sacred message | Concert preview

Stephen Michael Newby (2)

Stephen Newby (courtesy of Seattle Pacific University)

Are you a Sounders fan?

If so, you are already familiar with the resonant baritone of Seattle Pacific University composer and professor Stephen Newby, who sings the national anthem at the matches.

On Saturday, Newby applies his talents at a different “pitch,” when he debuts as a soloist for the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra’s annual concert of Duke Ellington’s sacred music.

Ellington began his sacred music concerts in 1965 at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and followed with two more concerts, in 1968 and 1973, before dying in 1974.

Newby is no stranger to the work. He will perform three pieces: “Come Sunday,” “Ninety Nine Percent” and “Don’t Get Down On Your Knees to Pray Until You Have Forgiven Everyone.”

Newby first sang the passionate prayer “Come Sunday” in high school and later, when he was teaching in Michigan — he came to Seattle in 1993 — arranged the piece for saxophone quartet and jazz ensemble.

“Come Sunday” was originally written in 1943 as a feature for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges on the suite, “Black, Brown and Beige.” The circuitous melody has a way of starting back up again just as it sounds as if it’s ending.

“It keeps coming back,” agrees Newby, who delights in theology as well as music. “I think the idea is the whole notion of a cycle. How do we break that weekly, daily cycle and come to Sunday? The piece points to our yearning for rest.”

Newby interprets “Ninety Nine Percent” as Ellington’s way of saying that only when we give 100 percent are we giving our best.

“But it’s not about perfection,” he says. “There’s always something we can improve, even if you’re really, really good. So there’s the line about getting ‘a little bit straighter.’ Save 100 percent for later.”

“Get Down on Your Knees” is, of course, all about forgiveness, he explains.

“And we must forgive ourselves, too,” he adds. “There are times that we are so down on ourselves that when we forgive others we forget that we are included in that group.”

Newby reads these three pieces as a trinity, with prayer pointing to rest and rest followed by giving your all.

“I wish to interpret this music as being about humanity’s wholeness,” he says.

This is the 26th year the SRJO, directed by saxophonist Michael Brockman and drummer Clarence Acox, has played Ellington’s sacred music during the holiday season. The concert is presented by Earshot Jazz.

The program also features the Northwest Chamber Chorus; vocalist and minister Nichol Veneé Eskridge, who has also appeared in Seattle’s “Black Nativity”; and tap-dancer, music teacher and saxophonist Alex Dugdale.

Sacred Music by Duke Ellington

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave.; $14-$38 (206-523-6159 or srjo.org or brownpapertickets.com).

Comments | More in Jazz | Topics: Concert Preview, Duke Ellington, Earshot Jazz

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