Center Jazz Orchestra – DMX Music, in Association with Brooks Brothers.
(Available at Brooks Bros. stores). ****:
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 ‘n’ 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 Dad..” What can I say? I’ve 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
Ellington’s 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 Duke’s 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 <www.amazon.com>.
Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance” is apparently one of Duke’s favorites,
containing elements of European harmony and dance rhythms. The LCJO
uses it to kick off the album. It’s 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 Ellington – a 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
Tchaikovsky’s “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 Duke’s
brown suede Italian shoes, and his sly smile through the mist of time.
Wry 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 Nothin’ ‘Til
You Hear From Me.” But first, it was a tour de force of trumpet
technique played by Cootie Williams, Duke’s 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 Williams’s
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 Duke’s 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, Duke’s 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 Blanton’s riffs as found in the original
score’s notation. And so it goes: an homâge 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 Duke’s very distinctive piano style.
Elllington’s 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 band’s new offerings, the changes in
personnel, the difference in drumming style, bass playing, etc., as
Duke kept up to date. I haven’t been a Duke Ellington fan all my life;
only since I was twelve.
Altogether, this album knocks me out. The section work is so tight. The
virtuoso lead men play so virtuosically. There’s a whole lot of joyful
music-making goin’ on, with respectful reverence to the previous bands’
stars. Other titles in the collection are: “Almost Cried,” “I Let A
Song Go Out Of My Heart,” “Jump For Joy,” “Kinda Dukish/Rockin’ 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 that’s important. The net
result is an album that’s an overview of some of Duke Ellington’s most
characteristic tunes, played (Should I say “wailed?”) by the LCJO. Go
to < 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!
You’ll 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 let’s get with it. And get on
this album. If you like Duke Ellington, this one will make you smile.
If you’re new to the Duke, this album is a great way to learn about
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, I’ll fake it. He lasted a couple
of weeks and got fired . Ciao Bambini.