To celebrate the centenary of Duke Ellington’s birth, Germany’s SWR Big Band joined forces with American saxophonist / big band leader Bob Mintzer for a May ’99 concert performance in Stuttgart that includes half a dozen compositions by Ellington (or associates) and four others by Mintzer. While considerable resourcefulness is needed to transmute any of these timeworn Ellington–style warhorses into front–runners again, Mintzer and the SWR’s Jörg–Achim Keller, each of whom arranged three of them, manage easily to do so, and the band plays their charts with uncommon enthusiasm and dexterity, as is also the case with Mintzer’s stable of well–scrubbed young thoroughbreds (“Runferyerlife,” “New Mambo,” “Carla,” “A Method to the Madness”). The gala concert opens with Ellington / Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” splendidly redrawn by Mintzer, and continues with Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” and “Sophisticated Lady,” son Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” and Duke’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Mintzer’s four compositions precede the high–spirited closer, Ellington’s “Cottontail,” creatively arranged (as were “Sophisticated Lady” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”) by Keller. As guest soloist Mintzer is conspicuously impressive but is pushed to the limit by SWR’s complement of superlative improvisers who include saxophonist Peter Weniger (soprano on “Caravan” and “Sophisticated Lady,” tenor on “Cottontail” and “Method to the Madness”); trombonists Marc Godfroid, Ian Cumming and Ernst Hutter; trumpeters Karl Farrent and Claus Reichstaller; altos Bernd Rabe and Klaus Graf; tenor Andreas Maile, baritone Rainer Heute, pianist Martin Schrack, bassist Decebal Badila and drummer Wolfgang Haffner. Mintzer, who has always been an enterprising soloist, charges into the breach with more boldness and agility than ever, and is at the top of his game knowing that the muscular SWR ensemble is there to lend its unremitting support. Mintzer’s a topnotch writer too, and his seven charts (including the four compositions) are cogent and charming, as are Keller's three. "Runferyerlife" is what is commonly known as a blazer or barn-burner (with blistering solos by Mintzer, Farrent, Graf and Haffner), "Carla" a winsome ballad on which the more even-tempered aspects of Mintzer's tenor are showcased; "New Mambo" expresses New York native Mintzer's abiding love for Latin music, "Method to the Madness" his penchant for writing contrapuntal lines that are as persuasive as they are swinging. Persuasive is a word that also describes quite accurately the concert as a whole. As a team, Mintzer and the SWR Big Band are well-nigh invincible. That is to say, while others may interpret this music as well as they, it is almost impossible to envision anyone doing it better. Listen for yourself and be convinced.
Track Listing: Caravan; Creole Love Call; Sophisticated Lady; Things Ain
Personnel: Bernd Rabe, Klaus Graf, Peter Weniger, Andreas Maile, Reiner Heute, reeds; Thomas Vogel, Klaus Reichstaller, Karl Farrent, Rudi Reindl, trumpet; Ernst Hutter, Marc Godfroid, Ian Cumming, Georg Maus, trombone; Martin Schrack, piano; Klaus