Joyful? Absolutely. Noise? Not on your bass drum, compadre. If it has taught us nothing else, the “Year of Ellington” now drawing to its close has shown that there are an almost infinite number of ways in which to enter and throw light upon the Duke’s abundant storehouse of enduring musical treasures. Don Sebesky has chosen the big–band route — the one most favored by the maestro himself — to stylishly renovate half a dozen opulent melodies by Ellington and his co–authors and another by alter ego Billy Strayhorn, uncloak his own three–part “Joyful Noise Suite” and present a faithful transcription of “Ko–Ko” from Ellington’s 1941 recording for RCA. Sebesky, one of the most respected Jazz composer / arrangers in the business, can literally have his pick of accomplished sidemen, and he chose only the best for this ensemble (including several from the formidable Vanguard Jazz Orchestra). A number of them (including, I believe, most of the trumpet section) can be seen from time to time in drummer Louie Bellson’s “East Coast” ensemble, which speaks for itself. As if that weren’t enough to ensure success, Sebesky has brought in a quintet of world–renowned guest soloists — Bob Brookmeyer, Ron Carter, Tom Harrell, John Pizzarelli and Phil Woods, each of whom plays a concise but notably dynamic role. Ellington’s wonderful compositions notwithstanding, the centerpiece of this impressive tribute is Sebesky’s 19–minutes–plus suite, whose three picturesque movements (“Gladly,” “Sadly,” “Madly”) capture superbly the indomitable Ellington spirit while showcasing emphatic solos by Brookmeyer, Woods, Harrell, pianist Jim McNeely, bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Dennis Mackrel. Brookmeyer, who on the eve of his 70th birthday is playing as well as he ever has (he’s especially impassioned in the suite), solos also on “Creole Love Call,” “Caravan” and “Ko–Ko.” Woods is heard on the first two of those and on “Satin Doll,” Harrell and Carter on “Satin Doll” and “Creole Love Call,” Pizzarelli on “Mood Indigo,” “Caravan” and “Satin Doll.” Although he’s listed as a guitarist / vocalist, Pizzarelli’s vocals consist of wordless counterweights to his guitar solos. The guest artists don’t usurp all of the solo space, with McNeely declaiming boldly on “Mood Indigo,” the elaborately rebuilt “Chelsea Bridge,” “Warm Valley” and “Ko–Ko.” Trumpeter Barry Ries, tenor Scott Robinson and the entire trombone section are featured on “Mood Indigo,” while tenor Tom Christensen is in the foreground on “Chelsea Bridge” and “Take the Coltrane,” trombonist Jim Pugh on “Take the Coltrane,” soprano Chuck Wilson and baritone Kenny Berger on “Warm Valley,” alto Andy Fusco on “Chelsea Bridge” and “Take the Coltrane,” flugel Brian O’Flaherty on “Chelsea Bridge,” trumpeter Tony Kadleck on “Creole Love Call.” Each of them is outstanding, but it is Sebesky’s superior arrangements that produce the strongest and most lasting impression. “My intention,” he says in the liner notes, “was not to imitate Duke. Instead, I’ve tried to treat these great tunes in new and unexpected ways; ‘Chelsea Bridge’ and ‘Mood Indigo,’ originally done as ballads, are given new time signatures and much faster tempos; ‘Creole Love Call,’ led by Ron Carter’s insistent bass line, is much ‘dirtier’ than Duke’s version; ‘Caravan’ is built on an arrangement Erroll Garner did for his trio on a 1954 LP (listen for his ‘left hand’ under Phil Woods’ solo). . . .This is our love letter to this great master.” It’s precisely the sort of love letter Duke would have cherished.
Track listing: Mood Indigo; Creole Love Call; Chelsea Bridge; Caravan; Warm Valley; Take the Coltrane; Satin Doll; Joyful Noise Suite (Gladly / Sadly / Madly); Ko–Ko (68:15).