Here’s a nourishing slice of Ellingtonia from Germany’s world–class NDR Big Band with several guest artists sitting in to enhance the bill of fare. While some of the names may be unfamiliar to Jazz enthusiasts on this side of the pond, take it from one who’s been listening to big–band Jazz for nearly half a century — they can play. Otherwise, as Duke himself pointed out, “it don’t mean a thing.” As the band is hardly in uncharted waters here, the arrangements are of crucial importance, and fortunately, Steve Gray, Joki Freund, Arif Mardin and Robert Lamb are up to the task, refurbishing these well–known songs by Ellington (as well as by Strayhorn and Duke’s son, Mercer) to give them a handsome new façade. The album opens with Gray’s uncommon treatment of Strayhorn’s “A Train,” in which the celebrated choo–choo barely generates enough power to get under way. As the slow–moving train pulls into the station and comes to rest the fireworks begin, with soloists Stanko and Sauer lending a JATP veneer to Freund’s snappy arrangement of “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Next up is the Ellingtonia medley (“Carnegie Blues,” Mercer’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Koko”), arranged by Mardin and followed by two of Duke’s most enduring melodies, “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Sophisticated Lady.” Slide Hampton is among the soloists on Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” and Stanko, Sauer and pianist Walter Norris return to traverse “Chelsea Bridge” and enliven Strayhorn’s “Day Dream.” Tracks 2 and 4–8, by the way, were recorded in 1984, the other three in 1998. The last of these is “Diminuendo, etc. in Blue,” arranged by Gray and featuring bass saxophonist Steffen Schorn, trombonist Joe Gallardo, alto saxophonist Fiete Felsch, trumpeter Gustavo Bergalli and tenor Lutz Büchner. Although there’s nothing here that Ellington enthusiasts won’t have heard (perhaps many times) before, the charts are admirable, and so are the band and its guests. Think of it as “The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra East.”
Track listing: Take the A Train; It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing; The Ellingtonia Medley (Carnegie Blues, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, Koko); In a Sentimental Mood; Sophisticated Lady; Caravan; Chelsea Bridge; Day Dream; Diminuendo, Crescendo and Crescendissimo in Blue (71:50).
The NDR Big Band (various personnel) conducted by Dieter Glawischnig, Steve Gray (1), Arif Mardin (3) with guest soloists Tomasz Stanko, Gustavo Bergalli, trumpet; Heinz Sauer, Christof Lauer, Lutz B