I’ve heard many tributes to Duke Ellington during the centennial year of his birth, but few that were more enjoyable than this impressive survey of his music by the relatively young and almost unknown North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra. It’s too bad that most people outside the Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill area, where the orchestra makes its home, will in all likelihood remain unaware of its existence. While the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Carnegie Hall Jazz Band get most of the ink, and deservedly so, there are a number of other topnotch bands such as this one that are bending their energies toward preserving and enhancing the imposing legacy of Ellington and other prominent Swing Era bands, and they too deserve to be recognized. The first thing one must acknowledge with thanks is the inclusion in this concise compendium of several lesser–known works including Ellington/Barney Bigard’s “Clarinet Lament” (splendidly reprised by the NCJRO’s Gregg Gelb), Ellington/Jimmy Blanton’s “Pitter Panther Patter” (featuring pianist Ed Paolantonio and bassist Don Gladstone), Ellington/Billy Strayhorn’s monumental “Mount Harissa” (with a stately tenor solo by Ira Wiggins), and Duke’s “Zweet Zurzday,” “Azure” and “Le Sucrier Velour.” A second observation concerns the level of musicianship, which remains notably high from one number to the next — even when confronted by the most formidable Ellington/Strayhorn charts, no one flinches. Everyone, soloists included, sound as though they’d have been reasonably comfortable seated next to Hodges, Carney, Webster, Anderson, Williams, Terry, Nance, Hamilton, Bigard, Blanton, Willie Smith, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Britt Woodman, Sonny Greer, Louie Bellson and so many other Ellington superstars of years gone by. The Duke also employed some superlative vocalists (Ivie Anderson and Betty Roche spring immediately to mind), and the NCJRO isn’t wanting in that area either, with Kathy Gelb poised and sensuous on “Satin Doll,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.” Besides Wiggins and Gregg Gelb, featured soloists include alto Rodney Marsh (“Isfahan”) and baritone William Fritz (“Azure”) with salient contributions from a number of others including Paolantonio, trombonists Broussard and Smith, alto Reid, guitarist Lile and trumpeters Ketch and Lineberry. Although the members of the NCJRO seek no undue praise for their venture, this reviewer would like to doff his cap and salute them for a job well done.
Track listing: Take the “A” Train; Cotton Tail; Satin Doll; Isfahan; Kissing Bug; Ring Dem Bells; I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good; Diminuendo in Blue; UMMG (Upper Manhattan Medical Group); Clarinet Lament; C Jam Blues; Pitter Panther Patter; Mount Harissa; Mood Indigo; Zweet Zurzday; I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues; Azure; Le Sucrier Velour (69:31).
Rodney Marsh, David Reid, alto sax, clarinet; Gregg Gelb, tenor sax, clarinet; Sanford Ira Wiggins, tenor sax; Durham William Fritz, baritone, alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; George Broussard, Tom Smith, Caren Enloe, trombone; Michael Kris, bass trombone; Jerry Bowers, James Ketch, Jay Lineberry, Benjy Springs, trumpet; Ed Paolantonio, piano; Drew Lile, guitar; Don Gladstone, bass; John Hanks, drums, percussion; Kathy Gelb, vocals.
Contact: Jazz Foundation of North Carolina, P.O. Box 51523, Durham, NC 27717