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Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters

Dan Bilawsky By

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Countless albums have been made with the sole intention of honoring the great Duke Ellington by highlighting his personality, piano skills and pile of hits, but they don't tell the whole story; part of his legacy rests with the men who brought his music to life. The individuals who filled out the roster in Ellington's illustrious band earned their own place in history by shaping the sound and identity of his group so, rather than tread on well-worn ground, arranger Mark Masters and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan have decided to shine a light on the reed personalities that populated Ellington's famed front row.

Ellington Saxophone Encounters takes a good look at some lesser known works written by the maestro's saxophone-toting sidemen for various sessions or occasions over the years. Some of the music performed here made it into the Ellington portfolio, while other tunes were used for sessions led by the saxophone individualists given their due on this date, but his influence, ideals and swinging ebullience are stamped all over this set. Masters employs a five saxophones-plus-rhythm unit to bring life to his own arrangements of the music of such Ellington mainstays as alto saxophone icon Johnny Hodges, clarinet wizard (and tenor saxophonist) Jimmy Hamilton, tenor giant Ben Webster, baritone saxophone pillar Harry Carney and tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves—a.k.a "king of the chorus-after-chorus solo." Some of the music simmers, some of it burns and some of it smolders, but Masters always finds the right temperature to suit each tune.

While all five front liners acquit themselves well throughout this date, it's Smulyan, tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb and saxophonist-cum-clarinetist Don Shelton that shine brightest. Smulyan's solid-as-a-rock baritone saxophone is kinetic where it counts and proves equally effective in mellow environs ("We're In Love Again"). Shelton taps into the very essence of the music with his clarinet ("Get Ready" and "Peaches"), but Christlieb proves to be the real breakout star. His pure passion and swinging fire put his work a step above the rest from the very start ("Esquire Swank") and he never lets up.

The rhythm section exhibits the same sense of refined swing that defined the sound behind Ellington's horns. Bassist Tom Warrington is an in-the-pocket walker who also solos with style and charm, drummer Joe La Barbera lays the groundwork and pianist Bill Cunliffe's debonair playing is a real treat...and a tribute to Ellington himself. Masters and Smulyan deserve a great deal of credit for crafting such a unique tribute to some of the finest section men and soloists to ever wield saxophones.

Track Listing: Esquire Swank; The Line Up; LB Blues; We're In Love Again; Ultra Blue; Used To Be Duke; Jeep's Blues; Get Ready; Love's Away; Rockin' In Rhythm; Peaches; The Happening.

Personnel: Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone; Peter Christlieb: tenor saxophone; Don Shelton: saxophone, clarinet; Gary Foster: alto saxophone; Gene Cipriano: saxophone; Bill Cunliffe: piano; Tom Warrington: bass; Joe LaBarbera: drums.

Title: Ellington Saxophone Encounters | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Capri Records

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