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Duke Ellington tribute records there have been by the dozen, but this one surely stands out as among the best. Big band arranger Don Sebesky brought together the cream of the crop: trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeter Tom Harrell, altoist Phil Woods, pianist Jim McNeely, guitarist John Pizzarelli, bassists Dennis Irwin and Ron Carter, and other fine soloists and section men. All these stellar players are in top form. It’s especially nice to hear Woods and Harrell together again — Harrell struck out on his own in the late 80s after several years as a member of the Phil Woods Quintet.
The session is high-energy. "Mood Indigo" gets a fast 6/4 treatment, while Strayhorn’s "Chelsea Bridge," usually a ballad, is played blisteringly fast. Both of these arrangements are bold departures from the norm. Then there’s the gritty slow blues of "Creole Love Call," during which Ron Carter humorously quotes the opening bass line of Dizzy Gillespie’s "Manteca." "Caravan" receives the usual latin treatment, but burning solos by Pizzarelli and Woods (on clarinet) make it a track to remember. On the ballad "Warm Valley," Sebesky makes use of the sonic contrast between baritone and soprano saxophones, with Kenny Berger playing baritone on the A sections and Chuck Wilson playing soprano on the bridge. Ron Carter anchors an imaginative rendition of "Satin Doll," and the band turns the heat up high for the fast blues of "Take the Coltrane."
But Sebesky’s original "Joyful Noise Suite (in Three Parts)" is what really elevates this record above run-of-the-mill Ellington tributes. The suite begins with "Gladly," which is loosely based on rhythm changes and features horn ensemble passages that sound, oddly, like Weather Report (I swear). Movement two, titled "Sadly," is a bluesy ballad feature for Woods’s alto; McNeely quotes "Sophisticated Lady" during his solo, while the seldom-heard euphonium wails softly in the background. The final movement is "Madly," a Rockin’ in Rhythm-style romp. All three movements are joined by seamless segues, resulting in just over nineteen minutes of beautiful, Ellington-inspired sound.
I can’t help but mention a few errors in the program notes. No credit is given for the fluegelhorn solo in "Caravan." Drummer Dennis Mackrel is also given no credit for his solo toward the end of "Take the Coltrane." Bass clarinet can be heard on "Sadly," but there’s no bass clarinetist listed in the lineup. And finally, Woods plays alto on "Madly," but is listed as playing clarinet.
Complaints aside, the record is beautifully recorded and mixed. This is especially evident in "Satin Doll" during John Pizzarelli’s guitar solo. You can tell the guitar is being picked up by a microphone, not an amp. The tone is purely acoustic, a delightful rarity. It would be very easy for such a sound to be completely drowned out during the ensemble shouts that punctuate the solo. But the guitar sings loud and clear, without straining. Bravo, engineers.
Sebesky ends the album with a note-for-note transcription of Ellington’s "Ko-Ko," a dark yet swinging minor key tune originally recorded in 1941. This is probably a two-fold gesture on Sebesky’s part. First, he wants to honor Ellington by presenting the real article, unaltered, as a way of balancing out the liberties taken on the rest of the record. Second, he wants to illuminate the tension between learning by imitating and learning by departing from the original script. Taken as a whole, the aptly named Joyful Noise dramatizes that creative evolution remarkably well.