Slavic Soul Party! – Plays Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite – Ropeadope

Ellington as you’ve never heard Ellington: let the party begin.

Slavic Soul Party! – Plays Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite [TrackList follows] – Ropeadope RAD-314, 52:14 [9/16/16] ****1/2:

(John Carlson, Kenny Warren – trumpet; Peter Hess – saxophone, clarinet; Peter Stan – accordion; Matt Musselman, Tim Vaughn – trombone; Ron Caswell – tuba; Chris Stromquist – snare drum, percussion; Matt Moran – tapan, goč, bubanj)

East meets West? Simply going by the title of this ensemble’s name, Slavic Soul Party!, you might assume this is an Eastern European band performing western jazz. Think again. This is actually East Coast meets Far East. The nine-member Slavic Soul Party! [they like to use an exclamation point] is a New York City-based group who put a fresh spin on Duke Ellington’s celebrated Far East Suite, issued 50 years ago in 1966. Percussionist Matt Moran (part of the Claudia Quartet, and who has backed Sufjan Stevens and others) formed Slavic Soul Party! in the late ‘90s, and over the years has presented music bursting with bouncy brass and has melded different musical viewpoints into a beguiling brew. Slavic Soul Party! is nearly all brass: two trumpets, two trombones, sax, clarinet and tuba, along with percussion and accordion. The result is this live and lively 52-minute recording, Plays Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite (taped in November 2014 at a Brooklyn venue), which deftly resets Ellington’s Eastern-tinged music with a Baltic musical spice.

The upfront and often funky ambiance is at the forefront from the get-go on the opener, “Tourist Point of View,” which is played faster and feistier than Ellington’s version. Peter Hess’ clarinet rides atop Chris Stromquist’s driving snare drum and Moran’s exotic percussion (here and elsewhere he switches between a Balkan double-headed drum called a tapan; a Serbian frame drum known as a bubanj; and a goč, which is similar to the tapan). The massed brass instruments furnish a melodic and harmonic blanket filled with gypsy music elements. The second tune, “Bluebird of Delhi,” is a definite highlight. Clarinet mimics the sound of an Indian mynah bird, Ron Caswell’s tuba provides a ruminating bass line, and there is a diminished and friendly swing to the rhythm instruments. About halfway through, the group veers toward a big-band march with some funky overtones, and Hess’s flexible clarinet glides and glistens above the very active horns. The arrangement slides to a slow and dramatic culmination.

Those only familiar with Ellington’s hits will no doubt enjoy the beautiful and endearing “Isfahan,” which became one of Ellington’s career highpoints.

Various horns get an opportunity to shine, including John Carlson and Kenny Warren’s trumpets; Caswell’s tuba (his bass notes slip into seemingly every empty space); while there are subdued moments for clarinet and accordion. The revelry vibe clicks back up to ascendency on the gypsy/Balkan-inclined “Depk,” where trombone takes center stage, Peter Stan does some dizzying work on accordion, and everyone (including the appreciative audience) has a fun time. There’s an appropriately piquant flavoring to “Blue Pepper,” seasoned with horn crescendos, a pulsing and high-spirited zest and some brilliant horn dialogues. Hard to believe the vigor could elevate, but it does during the verve-propelled “Amad.” Stan goes all out on accordion, Caswell’s tuba mingles with dynamic percussion, and the horns crisscross to create a swaying enthusiasm. Slavic Soul Party! sustains unpredictability through the epic 14-minute closer “Ad Lib on Nippon,” which upholds Ellington’s expansive presentation. The interplay of trumpets, trombones, sax, clarinet, accordion, tuba, drums and percussion is very much worth hearing. Best moments include Stan’s subtle, drone-like accordion during a quiet section and a Stan solo improvisation which blends eastern and western themes; some lovely trumpet soloing; and unaccompanied clarinet at the end. One of the wonderful things about jazz is how artists can utilize established and older material and refashion it into new and modern music without losing sight of what made the original music memorable and unforgettable. A tip of the top hat to Slavic Soul Party! for doing just that.

TrackList: Tourist Point of View; Bluebird of Delhi; Isfahan; Depk; Mount Harissa; Blue Pepper; Agra; Amad; Ad Lib on Nippon.

—Doug Simpson

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