Longtime big band arranger/bandleader Mark Masters happens to be President of the Pasadena, CA-based non-profit American Jazz Institute (AJI), while baritone saxophonist great Gary Smulyan
sits on its Advisory Board. Together, the two have often joined forces on musical projects intended to foster and promote jazz; Ellington Saxophone Encounters
is another one of their AJI collaborations, this time with the nine-piece Mark Masters Ensemble supplying the musical muscle.
Don't be misled by the title of the album, this is not a typical Duke Ellington
tribute album though the Ellington element cannot be denied. Masters and Smulyan decided on a different course, turning their focus from Ellington to music from members of his band. Accordingly, the twelve-piece repertoire contains music from Johnny Hodges
, Paul Gonsalves
, Jimmy Hamilton
, Ben Webster
and Harry Carney
all members of the Ellington saxophone section over the years. With Smulyan providing the meat of the solos throughout, tenor saxophonists Gary Foster
(another AJI board member), Pete Christlieb
and Gene Cipriano
, as well as alto saxophonist Don Shelton
, make sparkling contributions of their own.
Many, though not all, of the compositions were performed by Ellington bands, with Hodges and Ellington's "Esquire Swank," being one of the earliest. This version not only features Smulyan's voice as lead but, also embraces stellar lines from pianist Bill Cunliffe
, a torrid turn from Christlieb, and drummer Joe LaBarbera
's mastery of the brushes and cymbals. Featuring Cunliffe, three of the saxophones and bassist Tom Warrington
, Gonsalves' "The Line Up" comes across as very Ellington-esque in texture, as does "LB Blues."
Masters includes a beautiful love ballad from Carney (the longest-serving member of the Ellington band), showcasing a tender performance from Smulyan on "We're In Love Again." Saxophonist Foster weighs in for the first time on Hamilton's "Ultra Blue," an Ellington feature during the U.S. Treasury Department tour during the summer of 1945, promoting war bonds. "Used To Be Duke" was a Hodges piece recorded after the saxophonist left Ellington in 1951, only to return four years later; here, a lively pickup piece reminiscent of old time swing and dance.
The blues was an import part of Ellington's music, and to this end "Jeep's Blues" and "Get Ready," a tune that may not have appeared in an Ellington performance, are two of the three bluesy compositions, along with "Peaches," that are a natural for this purpose. Webster's "Love's Away" is another gorgeous ballad arranged to feature Christlieb's tenor voice, ably supported by the entire reed section and Cunliffe's brief lines. The album begins to wind down with the swinging, New Orleans-style "Rockin' In Rhythm" and "Peaches," closing on the hard-driving "The Happening."
The Ellington style is very much pronounced on Ellington Saxophone Encounters
, as is expected considering its sources. Smulyan's rich baritone lead and the superlative performance of the world-class Mark Masters Ensemble both serve to distinguish this homage to a legend as one of the finest recorded to date.