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Max on the Music!
Duke Ellington, Assorted Works; Wynton Marsalis/The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra DMX Music, in Association with Brooks Brothers
Well, Dudes, this one is a surprise even for me. Imagine! Max Dudious strolls into the local Brooks Brothers store about twice a year: after Xmas to catch the Winter Sale (some nice accessories, gloves 'ní stuff), and after The 4th to catch the Summer Sale (swim suits, or albino alligators). This time I was after some new duds to get my kids to stop calling me "funky-ole DadÖ" What can I say? Iíve become an old fart. And while I was in line to check out at the register, next to the little Visa sign I noticed a handful of this album in a tidy display case. Well, how could I refuse? Wynton Marsalis and Duke Ellington, and the Brooks Brothers-outfitted Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra!?! With the proceeds going to support the LCJO!?! I mean, it was a no-brainer.
To begin, the recordings were made before (some) live audiences at five different venues between 1999 and 2003, meaning the recording engineering is up to date. For authenticity, they use the original classic Ellington charts, only mildly tweaked by the LCJO. What we wind up with is a truly groovy, serious, well-recorded, digital showcase of Ellingtonís music written mostly in the '30s and '40s, with some in the '50s and '60s. If nothing else it gives us a realistic impression of the instrumental sonorities, harmonies, and power Dukeís early bands were capable of, played by young, dudely musicians. And do they ever nail the material.
No "Post-Modernist" he, nevertheless Duke was an early proponent of the idea that European classical music should enjoy no privilege over the indigenous American music then called "big-band" jazz. To prove his point he recorded some familiar pieces of the European classical repertoire that most easily lent themselves to his purpose; most successfully The Nutcracker Suite, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and The Peer Gynt Suite, by Edvard Grieg, still in print along with his Suite Thursday as a Columbia Jazz Masterpieces album titled, Duke Ellington: Three Suites (1960), available on CD through vendors such as Amazon (http://www.amazon.com).
Griegís "Anitraís Dance" is apparently one of Dukeís favorites, containing elements of European harmony and dance rhythms. The LCJO uses it to kick off the album. Itís an example of the full Ellington stylistic do-over: The melodies are still recognizable, though syncopated; the harmonies are a notch more modern; and the arrangement is classic Ellingtonóa silky trombone choir carrying the melody, the clarinet taking the lead for a few call-and-response passages, then handing off to the tenor sax for a few bars, then back to the clarinet, all punctuated by brass exclamation points, and some crackerjack big-band drumming. As John Keats might have written: "Music is dance; and dance, music. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know."
Tchaikovskyís "Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy" is translated into the Ellington idiom, with a bongo introduction vamp, leading to a sax-section treatment of the famous celesta passage, answered by the wah-wah of muted brass, until the piece has been transformed by Duke and the LCJO into the "Sugar Rum Cherry." I can just make out Dukeís brown suede Italian shoes, and his sly smile through the mist of time. Why not? Duke liked to demonstrate the universality of music, and the brief "Sugar Plum Fairy" dance solo lends itself to the type of arrangement he used in his 2,000 song oeuvre.
Duke also liked to write specialty numbers to show off the virtuosity of his great individual players. "Concerto For Cootie" was one of those compositions later termed a "masterpiece per week" by the jazz press. It was soon given lyrics and became a popular hit as "Do Nothiní 'Til You Hear From Me." But first, it was a tour de force of trumpet technique played by Cootie Williams, Dukeís venerable trumpeter for a generation or so, beginning with the plunger mute to create the "growl" so famously identified with the Ellington Band. Next, Williams played the middle section without a mute invoking the big, round sound of many trumpeters, perhaps here mimicking Roy Eldridge or Harry James. To complete the three minute "concerto" Williams would play the coda with a mute as if invoking Bubber Miley, his predecessor. The treatment on this LCJO album is a loving one, done in full reverence to Williamsís style, not trying to outhip him in any way. I think Winton and Ryan Kisor split the trumpet solo without trying to bring it up to date.
"Jack The Bear,"is another of Dukeís compositions that featured a member of the band, this time bassist Jimmy Blanton. Blanton was a larger than life character, a bear of a man, who redefined the bass in the early '40s as a sorta-kinda solo instrument in a series of bass/piano duets with Duke. Well, Blanton was at least successful in elevating an instrument deserving of more than plunk, plunk metronomic assignment. He died young. Recognizing his contribution, Dukeís band of the late '30s and early '40s became known as "the Blanton-Webster band." This version of "Jack The Bear," similarly honors Blanton, with Carlos Henriquez playing Blantonís riffs as found in the original scoreís notation. And so it goes: an hom‚ge to alto sax virtuoso Johnny Hodges here, another to tenor sax stalwart Ben Webster there; a tip of the wah-wah mute to trombone player Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton here, and everywhere tributes to the Dukeís very distinctive piano style.
Elllingtonís legacy is so monumental, so varied that he deserves some essay work done on his career in every decade. Like Mozart or Beethoven, he needs a constant process of re-evaluation. Though he formed his first band in 1927, as a 27 year old, I first picked up on his World War II music (including the great Blanton-Webster Band) in the '50s when my uncle Muggs placed his shellac 78 rpm collection in my hands. It was then the LP first came out and the record companies were re-releasing the earlier works. That incredible band has been captured in an RCA three-CD set (5659-2-RB) and is available. Then, as the '50s rolled on, I was tuned in to his bandís new offerings, the changes in personnel, the difference in drumming style, bass playing, etc., as Duke kept up to date. I havenít been a Duke Ellington fan all my lifeóonly since I was twelve.
Altogether, this album knocks me out. The section work is so tight. The virtuoso lead men play so virtuosically. Thereís a whole lot of joyful music-making goiní on, with respectful reverence to the previous bandsí stars. Other titles in the collection are: "Almost Cried," "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart," "Jump For Joy," "Kinda Dukish/Rockiní In Rhythm," "Zweet Zurzday," "Bli-Blip," "Pyramid," "Rhapsody In Blue," and "The Shepherd (Who Looks Over The Night Flock)," of which only two have vocals ("Jump For Joy, and "Bli-Blip."). They represent a longer span than merely the Webster-Blanton band, if thatís important. The net result is an album thatís an overview of some of Duke Ellingtonís most characteristic tunes, played (Should I say "wailed?") by the LCJO. Go to ( www.jazzatlincolncenter.org) for more info, and when you order this out-of-sight album from Brooks Brothers, make sure you tell 'em funky ole Max Dudious sent ya! Youíll be supporting a dynamite institution, the band that plays the music that serves as a training ground, like graduate school, for many musicians who will be heard from later. There is already a pretty long list of alumni. So come on Brigit, and letís get with it. And get on this album. If you like Duke Ellington, this one will make you smile. If youíre new to the Duke, this album is a great way to learn about him.
You have to imagine me, Maxie The Hipster, alias Dads, Max Givens, Oh-vootie, Oh-rooney, Oh- Maxie The Hipster, Dudious, slithering around lounge-lizard style at Brooks Brothers (in my black, waxed duster; topped by a wide-brimmed, black waxed Western hat with silver ornaments; and dark grey shades, black scarf, black jeans, etc.), an outsider checking out country-club duds, and stumbling onto this CD. I think it would have been enough to even make sourpuss Mingus laugh. Q. Do you know Mingus was the bass player in one of the Ellington bands? A. No, but if you whistle the bridge, Iíll fake it. He lasted a couple of weeks and got fired.
This review also appears in the current issue of Audiophile Audition http://www.audaud.com