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To celebrate properly its tenth anniversary in 1999 the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra and conductor / arranger David Matthews turned to the music of Duke Ellington, the centenary of whose birth was that same year, to produce an album whose aim, in Matthews’ words, was to be “unique while maintaining a clear sense of Ellington’s originals.” As was Duke’s custom, Matthews arranged each of the eight songs (including his own composition, “Song for Edward”) with specific soloists in mind, showcasing the talents of several of the MJO’s top–drawer improvisers — saxophonists Aaron Heick and Chris Hunter, trumpeters Ryan Kisor and Lew Soloff, and trombonist Jim Pugh. With one notable exception, the plan works quite well. That exception is “Mood Indigo,” which opens and closes on a funky rock–style beat and morphs in midstream into an up-tempo flag–waver, which to the best of my recollection is not at all what Ellington envisioned. That’s why he named the plaintive tone–poem “Mood Indigo,” not “Code Red.” Aside from that aberration (which, it should be noted, is well–played with slashing solos by Soloff, Kisor and Hunter), the components mesh smoothly to create a series of musical sketches that are highly individualistic but don’t lose sight of Duke’s fundamental purpose, that of writing big–band music that is often challenging but always entertaining. Matthews’ charts are designed to swing, and his New York–based all–stars have no trouble making sure they do, with brass and reeds in lock–step and the enterprising rhythm section (Matthews, bassist Chip Jackson, drummer Terry Silverlight) furnishing as much firepower as needed. There are a few moments of repose, as on “Sentimental Mood” (with Soloff phrasing the seductive melody) and “Come Sunday,” on which vocalist Christine Sperry’s celestial soprano conveys the lyric and Soloff inscribes another forceful commentary. In sum, a picturesque two–pronged birthday party that does credit to Ellington and the MJO.
Contact: Milestone Records, 10th and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710. www.fantasyjazz.com
Track Listing: It Don
Personnel: David Matthews, leader, piano; Lew Soloff, Ryan Kisor, Joe Shepley, Scott Wendholt, trumpet; Jim Pugh, Larry Farrell, Birch Johnson, trombone; David Taylor, bass trombone; Fred Griffin, John Clark, Chris Comer (1, 2, 8), French horn; Tony Price, tuba; Chris Hunter, alto sax; Aaron Heick, Lawrence Feldman (3, 4, 6), soprano sax, clarinet; Roger Rosenberg, bass clarinet; Chip Jackson, bass; Terry Silverlight, drums; Christine Sperry, vocal (