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Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters (2012)

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Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

Longtime big band arranger/bandleader Mark Masters happens to be President of the Pasadena, CA-based non-profit American Jazz Institute (AJI), while baritone saxophonist great Gary Smulyan
Gary Smulyan
Gary Smulyan
b.1956
sax, baritone
sits on its Advisory Board. Together, the two have often joined forces on musical projects intended to foster and promote jazz; Ellington Saxophone Encounters is another one of their AJI collaborations, this time with the nine-piece Mark Masters Ensemble supplying the musical muscle.

Don't be misled by the title of the album, this is not a typical Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
tribute album though the Ellington element cannot be denied. Masters and Smulyan decided on a different course, turning their focus from Ellington to music from members of his band. Accordingly, the twelve-piece repertoire contains music from Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
1907 - 1970
sax, alto
, Paul Gonsalves
Paul Gonsalves
Paul Gonsalves
1920 - 1974
sax, tenor
, Jimmy Hamilton
Jimmy Hamilton
Jimmy Hamilton
1917 - 1994
clarinet
, Ben Webster
Ben Webster
Ben Webster
1909 - 1973
sax, tenor
and Harry Carney
Harry Carney
Harry Carney
1910 - 1974
sax, baritone
—all members of the Ellington saxophone section over the years. With Smulyan providing the meat of the solos throughout, tenor saxophonists Gary Foster
Gary Foster
Gary Foster
b.1936
reeds
(another AJI board member), Pete Christlieb
Pete Christlieb
Pete Christlieb
b.1945
saxophone
and Gene Cipriano
Gene Cipriano
Gene Cipriano

saxophone
, as well as alto saxophonist Don Shelton, make sparkling contributions of their own.

Many, though not all, of the compositions were performed by Ellington bands, with Hodges and Ellington's "Esquire Swank," being one of the earliest. This version not only features Smulyan's voice as lead but, also embraces stellar lines from pianist Bill Cunliffe
Bill Cunliffe
Bill Cunliffe
b.1956
piano
, a torrid turn from Christlieb, and drummer Joe LaBarbera
Joe LaBarbera
Joe LaBarbera
b.1948
drums
's mastery of the brushes and cymbals. Featuring Cunliffe, three of the saxophones and bassist Tom Warrington, Gonsalves' "The Line Up" comes across as very Ellington-esque in texture, as does "LB Blues."

Masters includes a beautiful love ballad from Carney (the longest-serving member of the Ellington band), showcasing a tender performance from Smulyan on "We're In Love Again." Saxophonist Foster weighs in for the first time on Hamilton's "Ultra Blue," an Ellington feature during the U.S. Treasury Department tour during the summer of 1945, promoting war bonds. "Used To Be Duke" was a Hodges piece recorded after the saxophonist left Ellington in 1951, only to return four years later; here, a lively pickup piece reminiscent of old time swing and dance.

The blues was an import part of Ellington's music, and to this end "Jeep's Blues" and "Get Ready," a tune that may not have appeared in an Ellington performance, are two of the three bluesy compositions, along with "Peaches," that are a natural for this purpose. Webster's "Love's Away" is another gorgeous ballad arranged to feature Christlieb's tenor voice, ably supported by the entire reed section and Cunliffe's brief lines. The album begins to wind down with the swinging, New Orleans-style "Rockin' In Rhythm" and "Peaches," closing on the hard-driving "The Happening."

The Ellington style is very much pronounced on Ellington Saxophone Encounters, as is expected considering its sources. Smulyan's rich baritone lead and the superlative performance of the world-class Mark Masters Ensemble both serve to distinguish this homage to a legend as one of the finest recorded to date.


Track Listing: Esquire Swank; The Line Up; LB Blues; We're In Love Again; Ultra Blues; Used To Be Duke; Jeep's Blues; Get Ready; Love's Away; Rockin' In Rhythm; Peaches; The Happening.

Personnel: Mark Masters: conductor, arrangements; Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone; Tom Warrington: bass; Bill Cunliffe: Piano; Joe La Barbera: drums; Gene Cipriano: tenor saxophone; Pete Christlieb: tenor saxophone; Gary Foster: tenor saxophone, alto saxophone (5); Don Shelton: alto saxophone.

Record Label: Capri Records


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