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The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: In the Spirit of Duke

Dan McClenaghan By

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Another tribute to bandleader/composer/pianist Duke Ellington? Is this necessary? Pulling from the archive a few recent nods to one of America's musical icons reveals 1997's elegant Count Plays Duke (Mama Records), by the Count Basie Orchestra; Don Sebesky's unabashedly gorgeous Joyful Noise (RCA Victor, 1999); and pianist Ted Howe's excellent trio affair, Ellington (Summit Records, 2005). Each album explores Ellington deeply, while offering its own idiosyncratic twists to the music.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra—and let's put it up front: yes, this is necessary—captures, perhaps most accurately, Ellington's sound and spirit with its sublime In the Spirit of Duke. Directed by saxophonist Tommy Smith, the orchestra offers up stirring versions of the classic Ellington art, recorded live in concert in very exhilarating fashion.

Smith wanted an authentic sound, so he brought in period mutes, recreated the stage setup of Ellington's time and used specially transcribed scores, playing some of the maestro's familiar classics—including "Black and Tan Fantasy," Creole Love Call; Prelude to a Kiss; The Single Pedal of a Rose—and some compositions known mainly to Duke-o-philes, such as "Morning Moods," "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and "Anitra's Dance," from the Ellington/Billy Strayhorn version of Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite.

With a crisp, clean sound, the orchestra has captured the Ellington attitude: the swing, the pizzazz, the wonderful harmonies. The plentiful, fresh and spirited soloing doesn't match the likes of Ellington saxophonists Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, or trumpeters Cootie Williams and Ray Nance, though it's clear this wasn't the intention. Solos, after all, are the instrumentalists' chance to step out and let their individual personalities shine; that they do. Trumpeter Tom MacNiven works plunger mute magic on "Concierto for Cootie," while a back-to-back solo spot on "Jack the Bear" features clarinetist Martin Kershaw, baritone saxophonist Bill Flemming and a laidback wrap-up from trombonist Phil O'Malley.

The individual tunes are short and concise, like a back-in-the-day Ellington concert. The solos are sweet, swinging and to the point, with one exception: Smith's tenor saxophone's "Wailing Interval" in the middle of "Diminuendo in Blue/Crescendo in Blue." It's not quite the freewheeling and supremely inspired (and unmatchable) 27 choruses lain down by Ellington saxophonist Paul Gonsalves at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, but Smith rides the groove in a rousing way, wailing, for an invigorating fourteen minute close to this magical concert recording.

Track Listing: Black and tan Fantasy/Creole Love Call; In the Hall of the Mountain King; Jack the Bear; Le Sucrier Velours; Daybreak Express; Concert for Cootie; Harlem Air Shaft; Prelude to a Kiss; Sepia Panorama; Ko-Ko; Morning Mood; Anitra's Dance; The Single Pedal of a Rose; Kinda Dukish & Rockin' in Rhythm; Sunset and the Mocking Bird; Diminuendo in Blue [Wailing Interval] Crescendo in Blue.

Personnel: Tommy Smith: tenor saxophone and Director; Brian Kellock: piano; Ruaraidh Pattison: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet; Konrad Wiszniewski: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; clarinet; Bill Fleming: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Ryan Quigley: trumpet; Cameron Jay: trumpet; Tom MacNiven: trumpet; James Marr: trumpet; Chris Greive: trombone; Phil O'Malley: trombone; Michael Owers: bass trombone; Calum Gourlay: acoustic bass; Alyn Cosker: drums.

Title: In the Spirit of Duke | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Spartacus Records

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