Three Black Kings has lain dormant almost since Alvin Ailey created it for a massive Duke Ellington celebration that he organised in 1976. The choreographer had made dances to the Duke from the beginning – Blues Suite, Reflections in D and a suite of works Ellington commissioned to accompany My People for the Emancipation Proclamation’s centenary in 1963. But when the composer died in 1974, Ailey outdid himself, creating eight pieces to his music in two years.
Three Black Kings is the genius jazzman’s last composition, completed by his son Mercer after his death. It is not his best work, nor Ailey’s. But both are good enough to justify this belated revival, especially when Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is in the house, as it was last week. In fact, the dance dwarfed everything else on Wednesday night: Billy Wilson’s Winter in Lisbon, a paean to 1940s nightlife that drowned Marsalis’s smoky, then bleating trumpet in a din of razzmatazz moves; Ulysses Dove’s Episodes, a portrait of mean-spirited anonymous sex; and artistic director-designate Robert Battle’s solo In/Side, its appealingly gawky vulnerability undermined by a repetitive structure.
For the first black king, the Nativity wise man Balthazar, Ellington alternates propulsive conga drum with piercing clarinet. To the drums Ailey sets bare-chested men whirling like dervishes. To the reed, the dancers bow luxuriously before their demigod king (Jamar Roberts, perfectly typecast). But the music’s lyrical solos do not merely announce the presence of royalty; they are a clarion call to a new order. Why else would the Magi “traverse afar”? Ailey sticks to Balthazar before he leaves home.
For Solomon, king number two, Ellington focuses not on the sage judge but on the lover of 700 wives and 300 concubines. So Clifton Brown comes out in a loincloth. Ailey does match the composer’s discrete, big-band suavity, though – with a swoopy pas de deux.
The composer had originally planned Three Black Kings as a tribute to Martin Luther King, and it is the final gospel-inflected movement dedicated to the civil rights leader that really rollicks. Ailey responds with one mass of individuals moving in counterpoint to another – our pleasure in pattern offset by surprise. So much of the uplift for which Ailey is famous depends on the humble rigour of his designs. ()