The Vienna Art Orchestra's (VAO) tribute to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn is made up of tunes culled from several performances during VOA's Spring Tour 99. This is not the group's first encounter with Ellington, having in1994 released its The Original Charts of Duke Ellington & Charles Mingus. On this album, they "do" Ellington/Strayhorn quite differently than one usually hears the masters' works. Mathias Ruegg's arrangements are challenging to both those who play them and to those who listen and, in the view of this reviewer, are perfectly legitimate interpretations of this classic music.
The first three cuts are rarely heard Ellington works. Perhaps the most well known, "Red Garter" for the 1958 Toots Suite followed by "Very Special" and "Blues in Blueprint" are given straight forward big band arrangements. Then comes one of Duke's more famous compositions, "Mood Indigo" and the fun begins. This tune is done as a duet between Christian Muthspiel's growling, insinuating trombone and his brother's Wolfgang's sassy, sometimes Hawaiian sounding guitar. One of the more unique arrangements Ruegg has created for this session. After a pleasant interlude with the rendition of Strayhorn's "Smada," comes "Warm Valley." Most performances of this tune take their cur from Duke's 1940 recording. Johnny Hodges' sensuous alto sax solo left no doubt as to the location of the "warm valley" the Duke had in mind when he penned this song. The tenor solo by Andy Scherrer is far more rugged and obviously is based on a realistic Germanic assumption that the warm valley Duke had in mind was a lowland somewhere in the Austrian Alps. Ruegg's arrangement of "Rockin' in Rhythm" calls for an unusual interplay between sax and brass sections. It is not call and response, or the usual ensemble playing where all the sections are playing the same chords. Rather it is ensemble playing where the reed and brass sections are doing different improvisations on the same theme. Weaving in and out is Anna Lauvergnac's wordless vocalizing which is as much of an instrument on this piece as the reeds or brass. This arrangement may not be Ellington fans' cup of tea, but it will get their attention. The Ellington Orchestra signature piece, "Take the "A" Train", favored by big bands, becomes under Ruegg's leadership, a dark toned, very imaginative bass clarinet/bass duet. This, and the other unique arrangements of familiar Ellington material may on first hearing offend some listeners. For those, instead of tossing the album aside, I suggest that another listen or two will result in an appreciation of what the VOA and its i
Tracks:Red Garter; Very Special; Blues in Blueprint; Mood Indigo; Smada; Warm Valley; Circle in Fourth; Take the "A" Train; After All; I'm Just a Lucky So and So; Blood Count ;Rockin' in Rhythm; Little Max; Sophisticated Lady
Personnel: Anna Lauvergnac-Vocals; Thorsten Benkenstein, Matthieu Michel, Thomas Gansch, Bumi Fian-Trumpets; Klaus Dickbauer, Florian Bramb