Jazz CD Reviews

Mark Masters Ensemble – American Jazz Institute Presents Ellington Saxophone Encounters – Capri Records

A classy tribute to Duke’s men…

Published on September 12, 2012

Mark Masters Ensemble – American Jazz Institute Presents Ellington Saxophone Encounters – Capri Records

Mark Masters Ensemble – American Jazz Institute Presents Ellington Saxophone Encounters – Capri Records 74118-2, 67:12 ****½:

(Gary Foster, Don Shelton, Pete Christlieb, Gene Cipriano, Gary Smulyan – reeds; Bill Cunliffe, piano; Tom Warrington, bass; Joe La Barbera, drums; Mark Masters, band leader and arranger)

The American Jazz Institute is led by Mark Masters, and on its advisory board is baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. The two musicians decided to do a unique tribute CD, and rather than do the more typical book of Ellington compositions, it was time to dedicate a session to Duke’s saxophonists. In addition to recording songs made famous by Ellington’s reed players, why not record tracks either written by the saxophonists themselves, or at least co-written by them with Duke? Thus, Ellington Saxophone Encounters was brought to life. Smulyan is featured on ten of the twelve tracks chosen, but each of the other saxophonists gets featured solo time. Saxophone Encounters honors probably the most well known Ellington reed players: Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Paul Gonsalves, and Jimmy Hamilton.

To make things even more interesting, Masters and Smulyan decided to feature more of the saxophonists’ sidemen recordings rather than those done with the Ellington band.

The CD opens with “Esquire Swank”, which debuted in 1945. Smulyan takes lead and pianist Cunliffe has the Ellington touch. Pete Christlieb has a soulful run, and Joe La Barbera demonstrates his mastery of the brushes.

Paul Gonsalves wrote “The Line-Up” and Gary Smulyan has two solos here. Gene Cipriano and Don Shelton, who are primarily known for doing studio work in the LA area, get a front line chance to shine and show their mettle. I also dug Bill Cunliffe’s opening choruses which set the stage for the saxophonists. The ensemble playing of the reeds really channel Duke’s saxophone section, which is quite an accomplishment.

“Lawrence Brown Blues” written by Hodges to honor Duke’s masterful trombone player, was recorded by Hodges and organist Wild Bill Davis in the mid 60s. It’s a rollicking blues and Smulyan and Shelton share honors, while Tom Warrington provides an assertive bass solo.

Harry Carney’s “We’re in Love Again” shows Smulyan as the present day heir to Carney’s legacy. This composition was featured on Harry’s only recording as a band leader, then done with strings, but here it is Smulyan backed by the rhythm section on a gorgeous ballad.

Jimmy Hamilton’s “Ultra Blue” is next, and while Jimmy is more known in Duke’s band as a clarinetist, he also played saxophone. Gary Foster, an in demand LA session man, makes his presence felt here with a sweet alto solo. Cunliffe’s sparkling piano gets a few choruses before Smulyan steps in. Warrington’s bass solo follows. Tally Sherwood’s engineering and mixing skills are evident in the pristine acoustics both here and throughout this CD.

“Used to be Duke” along with “Jeep’s Blues” are the most well recognized Hodges’ tracks on the CD. Johnny’s sensuous alto tone was immediately identifiable, and here Smulyan’s throaty baritone is lead sax on both tunes (along with Pete Christlieb on “Used to be Duke”). The ensemble feel from the other saxophonists on these two blues classics is superb. (This show has to go on the road…)

Jimmy Hamilton’s “Get Ready” clarinet feature has Don Shelton channeling Jimmy effectively, while the ever present Smulyan, Warrington, and Cunliffe, also make statements. Pete Christlieb, one of the most muscular tenor saxophonists on the scene today, tackles Ben Webster’s “Love’s Away” with aplomb.

One of Duke’s earliest numbers, “Rockin in Rhythm” gets a 1930s night club arrangement that makes you want to kick up your heels. Hodges’ “Peaches” and Gonsalves’ “The Happening” close out Saxophone Encounters, and Cipriano and Christlieb shine on the former, while the latter based on “I Got Rhythm” has the ensemble shining like a proper Ellington reed section should.

This is a superb CD that is a must buy for both Ellington band fans, and those that appreciate his famous saxophonists’ talents.

TrackList: Esquire Swank, The Line Up, LB Blues, We’re in Love Again, Ultra Blue, Used to Be Duke, Jeep’s Blues, Get Ready, Love’s Away, Rockin’ In Rhythm, Peaches, The Happening

—Jeff Krow

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