R3: Special Big Band / Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra / Empire Jazz Orchestra
The Duke Ellington Legacy is a nine-piece ensemble founded by Edward Kennedy Ellington II, the Duke's grandson and son of Mercer Ellington who led the new Ellington orchestra for a number of years after his father's death in 1974. Single Petal of a Rose, the group's second recording, is enhanced on five tracks by the presence of the veteran tenor saxophonist Houston Person and further amplified by the admirable arranging skills of pianist Norman Simmons and saxophonist / music director Virginia Mayhew. Ellington himself is the guitarist, teaming with Simmons, bassist Tom DiCarlo, drummer Paul Wells and percussionist Sheila Earley to comprise a sturdy rhythm section. Vocalist Nancy Reed is another decisive asset, delivering open-hearted readings of "In My Solitude," "In a Mellow Tone," "Squeeze Me" and "Love You Madly."
While most of the music is from the Ellington / Billy Strayhorn library, there are two exceptions: Erskine Hawkins' gin-soaked "After Hours" and Simmons' assertive blues, "Home Grown." Aside from his notable talents as a composer, arranger and accompanist, Simmons is a splendid soloist as well, as he shows from the outset on the gossamer title selection (dedicated to the leader's mother, Evelyn), on which his unaccompanied piano weaves an entrancing spell. Simmons is showcased again on "After Hours" and Strayhorn's tender "Lotus Blossom," trombonist Noah Bless on Strayhorn's pensive study in self-analysis, "Blood Count." Mayhew, another first-rate improviser, is heard to good advantage on five numbers, while the other member of the front line, trumpeter Jami Dauber (like Mayhew an alumna of the all-female big band DIVA), is in fine form on "Happy Go Lucky Local" (perhaps best known to some as "Night Train"), "Home Grown," "Mellow Tone," "Squeeze Me" and "Love You Madly." Completing the program are Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group" and "Lush Life" (the last with a charming introduction by Simmons).
Even though it's far from garden-fresh, the music of Ellington / Strayhorn has stood the test of time, and it's always a kick to hear it again, especially when dressed in a brand new wardrobe. Thanks in part to the Duke's grandson, the Duke Ellington Legacy remains alive and well, and that's a good thing. For Ellington fansand they are legionas well as music-lovers everywhere, Single Petal of a Rose bears witness again that music of this stature has no shelf-life.
Washington State University Jazz Big Band
As so many of today's university-level jazz ensembles are so well-schooled (pardon the pun) that there's scarcely enough daylight to single out one from another, they must be measured according to other criteria including the music they have chosen to play: is it interesting enough to draw the listener's attention and keep him or her immersed in its themes throughout the length of an entire album? It is here that Washington State University earns a slim edge, as Zoot Suit, the band's second recording under Greg Yasinitsky's able direction, is comprised of nearly a dozen captivating tunes, well-written by Yasinitsky and eight other composers and well-played by five groups spanning the years 2009-2011.
While Yasinitsky wrote a pair of the album's more engaging themes, "Zoot Suit" and "Saratoga," they are no more than a slight step ahead of Lynn Petersen's animated "Three Way Stop," tenor saxophonist Patrick Sheng's high-flying "Monkey King" or alto Stan Sabourin's assertive "Ozone" (on which he solos with pianist Charles Wicklander). Sheng is the featured soloist on "Stop" and Billy Strayhorn's often-crossed "Chelsea Bridge," alto David Crow on Sam Jones' lyrical "Unit Seven," while baritone Matt Lanka shines with trumpeter Brendan McMurphy on "Saratoga" and with Wicklander on Brent Edstrom's muscular arrangement of the traditional folk hymn "Down by the Riverside." Estrom also deftly remodeled George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" (solos by Sheng, Crow and drummer Scott Langdon). Guest trombonist Matt Finders is in the pocket on his own shuffling composition, "Terilyn's Dance," and the ensemble fashions a likable groove from the outset on Bill Liston's sunny opener, "Tri-Bop." Tenors Sarah Cosano and Oliver Walter solo with Wicklander and bassist Tanner Brown on "Tri-Bop," with Wicklander, Brown, Crow and Langdon on "Zoot Suit."
Sound quality is first rate, playing time respectable at roughly one hour. Most decisive, hardly any of the time is squandered as Yasinitsky's undergrads put their collective shoulders to the wheel and keep their eyes on the ball to assure that every number is given its due. There aren't many big-band albums, especially at the college level, that are a pleasure to hear from end to end; this is one of them.
Tracks and Personnel