Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, the most influential composer / arranger / bandleader in the history of Jazz, was born April 29, 1899, in Washington, DC. As it happens, our nation’s capital is also home to Howard University, which boasts one of the country’s foremost undergraduate Jazz ensembles and most respected Jazz Studies programs. In 1971 Ellington received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Howard, and the university’s year–long celebration of the centenary of his birth led the Jazz ensemble to a studio last May to record Come Sunday: A Tribute to Duke Ellington. Of all the Ellington tributes we’ve heard (and there may be others yet to come), HUJE ’99 is as admirable as any and better than most, for a number of reasons: (1) marvelous blowing throughout by director Fred Irby’s battle–ready ensemble; (2) a superb program of memorable songs by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn complemented by Frederick Tillis’ soulful “Fantasy on Sunday in Egypt’s Land” from 1998; and (3) dazzling guest appearances by faculty members Charles Covington, Harold Summey, Charlie Young and Gerry Kunkel. Covington (organ) and drummer Summey lead things off by themselves on “Come Sunday” and return later for a breezy version of Strayhorn’s “A Train.” Covington’s unaccompanied piano takes center stage on “Chelsea Bridge” and “Solitude,” while Young’s incisive alto is featured on “Blood Count” and Kunkel’s bracing electric guitar on “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Elsewhere, the ensemble is in the spotlight and never disappoints, playing the music of Ellington and Strayhorn as if born to do so. One can envision some of its members (pianist Janelle Gill, tenor Joseph Berryman or drummer Clyde Adams II, for example) going straight from Howard to Wynton Marsalis’ Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. Probably won’t happen (the CHJO is well–stocked with exemplary players) but they’d be an asset to any orchestra including Wynton’s. Gill frames a number of enterprising solos (“Caravan,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Fantasy,” “Duke’s Place,” “In a Mellow Tone,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Satin Doll”), as does Berryman (“It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Fantasy,” “Lush Life,” “Duke’s Place,” “Sentimental Mood,” “Satin Doll”), while Adams is the driving force behind the ensemble’s high–powered rhythm section (which needs every ounce of that power to keep pace with the ensemble’s muscular brass and reeds). Besides “Fantasy,” which interweaves the melody of Ellington’s “Come Sunday” with the traditional spiritual “Go Down Moses,” Howard commissioned charts by Brian Lewis (“Caravan”), Mike Crotty (“Lush Life”) and Chris Royal (“Sentimental Mood,” “Sophisticated Lady”), and each one is a gem. The last includes the album’s only vocal, by Patrick dos Santos. Howard’s Jazz ensemble has been setting forth recorded evidence of its prowess for more than two decades, and somehow manages to top itself every year. Come Sunday is the best yet, a radiantly impassioned homage to fellow Washingtonian Duke Ellington, one that shouldn’t be passed over.
Track listing: Come Sunday; Caravan; Blood Count; It Don’t Mean a Thing; Fantasy on Sunday in Egypt’s Land; Lush Life; Don’t Get Around Much Anymore; Chelsea Bridge; Duke’s Place; Take the “A” Train; In a Sentimental Mood; Solitude; In a Mellow Tone; Sophisticated Lady; Satin Doll (75:11).
Fred Irby III, music director; Imoite Omulepu, clarinet; Jerrell Whitaker, Ayo Martini, alto sax; Joseph Berryman, Dominique Postell, tenor sax; Ronald J. Acosta, baritone sax; Michael Fitzhugh, Charles Gunter, Roberto Perez, Charles Washington, Adolph Wright Jr., trumpet, flugelhorn; Nzinga Howard, Allen D. Gardner, Kenneth Gill, trombone; Matthew Caraballo, bass trombone; Eric Henderson, tuba; Janelle Gill, piano; Cedric Aperano, Dennis Benjamin, Benjamin Tyree, guitar; Hamilton Hayes, bass; Clyde Adams II, drums; Patrick dos Santos, vocals. Guest faculty: Charles Covington, organ (1, 10), piano (8, 12); Harold Summey, drums (1, 10); Charlie Young, alto sax (3); Gerry Kunkel, electric guitar (7).