Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Swedish Radio Jazz Group’s two–disc salute to Duke Ellington in his centenary year is that it includes no songs composed by Ellington himself. Son Mercer Ellington is represented by “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” strong right arm Billy Strayhorn by the elegant “Portrait of a Silk Thread.” The other half–dozen numbers were written to honor Ellington by a number of Sweden’s leading Jazz composers. There are three suites, Mikael Råberg’s three–part “Solgång,” Bengt Hallberg’s four–movement “Serenade from Sweden” and Nils Lindberg’s tripartite “Ducal Dedication.” The others are Georg Riedel’s “Sorrow Is the Birth of Joy,” Bosse Broberg’s “Reminiscing in Red” and Bengt–Arne Wallin’s suitably descriptive “One of a Kind.” Pianists Hallberg and Lindberg and trombonist Råberg perform on their own compositions in this concert recording from May 1994 (yes, the ensemble got a marvelous head start on the Ellington centennial) at Stockholm’s Berwald Hall. Actually, the concert was part of the annual international Ellington festival, held for the first time that year in Sweden. The music itself is properly Ducal, introspective yet melodically strong with well–defined rhythmic patterns, captivating orchestral passages and ample room for solos. Some of it cooks, some of it simmers, and all of it swings, Ellington–style. Trumpeter Clark Terry is a guest on two selections, playing (and “mumbling”) on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” and unsheathing the horn again on “One of a Kind.” Sitting in elsewhere are trombonist Urban Wiborg (“Solgång”) and trumpeter Thomas Driving (“Reminiscing in Red”). The descriptive liner notes are quite useful, with each of the composers clarifying his approach to the music. Riedel, for example, says he used a long crescendo as the basic building block for “Sorrow,” thinking of Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” and Paul Gonsalves’ extended tenor solo. The first–rate soloists are pianist Svensson, baritone saxophonist Nilsson, trombonist Johansson and trumpeter Asplund. Råberg used the older Ellington recordings as a pattern for “Solgång,” employing his own instrument, the trombone, in a soloistic way and including a dash of Ellingtonian clarinet (courtesy of Krister Andersson). Hallberg, an admirer of Ellington’s piano technique, opens his “Serenade” in 3/4 time, accelerates to a sort of rock–bolero, then slows again into a ballad for viola and big band. The second half is more swing–accented, with a slow saxophone quintet followed by a more rapid finale. Lindberg, also a pianist, played in Ellington’s orchestra during its European tour in 1973, and Duke recorded his arrangement of the Swedish folk song “Far–away Star” with Alice Babs as vocalist. His composition, he says, is “a suite in one movement in different tempi. The fast first part is followed by an improvised piano cadenza that leads to a slower part before the first theme reappears.” Broberg’s “Reminiscing in Red” pays homage not only to Ellington but to Bosse’s friend and colleague, the late bassist Red Mitchell, taking a standard variant in 3/4 time from one of Red’s favorite tunes, “East of the Sun.” Wallin closes the concert with “One of a Kind,” whose soft opening passage is enlivened by Terry’s trumpet and Andersson’s clarinet before the orchestra appends an Ellington–like requiem to underline their solos. Andersson also shines on tenor sax (“Serenade,” “Ducal Dedication”) as do pianist Svensson (“Solgång,” “Reminiscing”), soprano saxophonist Lennart Åberg (“Silk Thread,” “Dedication,” “Reminiscing”), trumpeter Jan Allan (“Dedication,” “Reminiscing”), alto Hans Åkesson (“Serenade,” “Dedication”), trombonist Bertil Strandberg and drummer Egil Johansen (“Reminiscing”). It’s clear the Swedes have studied and applied the special Ellington makeup, and this picturesque salute is as much a testament to their consummate artistry as it is to the Duke’s unapproachable legacy. Easily recommended.
Track listing: Disc 1 — Things Ain’t What They Used to Be; Sorrow Is the Birth of Joy; Solgång; Serenade from Sweden (54:53). Disc 2 — Portrait of a Silk Thread; A Ducal Dedication; Reminiscing in Red; One of a Kind (47:04).