Prime Early Orchestral Duke Ellington From the Jazz at Lincoln Center Ochestra with Wynton Marsalis
What do you do when your big band can’t play any gigs because of the lockdown? You put out an album to keep your fans satisfied until you can get back onstage. More of the large ensembles who play big concert halls around the world should follow the example of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, who’ve just put out a dynamically rich, aptly epic recording of a 2017 live performance of Duke Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige, streaming at youtube.
The big difference between this and the 1943 original is the sonics. Stereo and digital clarity are part of the picture. Interestingly, while JALC’s Rose Auditorium is a pretty dry room – for a jazz venue, especially – you can hear some reverb on the brass. And Marsalis is an Ellingtonian to the core: his passion for this music translates to both the orchestra and the listener.
The dips, swells and conversational contrasts between winds and brass are vividly distinct throughout the suite’s first number, Work Song. As early symphonic Ellington, it’s fascinating to see how the composer takes a folksy 19th century-style melody, makes a plush swing tune and then classical music out of it, seamlessly And the bandleader’s wry phrasing with his mute in response to the daily drudgery is spot-on.
Eli Bishop’s wistfully soaring violin solo in Come Sunday is just as impactful, setting up the long, balmy closing tenor sax break: this is a wind-down day, and it’s sad to see the weekend go. Kicking off with Marsalis’ coy reveille, Light is a good example of how far Ellington would go in pushing a swing theme beyond the confines of a 78 RPM record.
Vaudevillian drums anchor the hazy, complex harmonies of West Indian Dance, until the rhythm section push the beat and it’s choo-choo-ch-boogie, yeah mon! Emancipation Celebration serves as a jubilant coda. Then Brianna Thomas joins the band to deliver a broodingly hushed take of Blues Theme Mauve; a stunningly haggard alto sax solo draws a burst of applause from the crowd.
In the series of themes that follow, jungly drums give way to a funereal interlude that finally engages the piano, then a comfortable walz and a triumphant return to swing. The long tenor sax solo at the center of a warmly nocturnal Sugar Hill Penthouse has nonchalantly impressive range. The orchestra bring the suite full circle, conversationally, trumpeter Chris Crenshaw putting the icing on the cake