It is an absolute pleasure to hear several of Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn's classic charts for Ellington's celebrated 1940-42 Blanton-Webster orchestra (named for a pair of its stars, bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster) adeptly rescored for a twenty-first century ensemble by the superlative arranger Mark Masters. And to ice the cake, the Masters ensemble welcomes to its ranks Art Baron, the last trombonist hired by Ellington, who anchored the plunger chair from 1973 until Ellington's death the following year and remained in the orchestra under the baton of the Duke's son, Mercer Ellington.
To his credit, Masters touches up these familiar melodies without forswearing their inherent eloquence and charm, which after all is what has sustained their popularity for some eight decades. The studio set comprises a dozen themes, eight by Ellington (including a brief and bluesy introduction by a quartet to "In a Mellotone"), three by Strayhorn ("Take the 'A' Train," "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," "Passion Flower") and Juan Tizol's "Perdido." Kirsten Edkins and Jerry Pinter sit in for Webster, Bruce Lett for Blanton. Drummer Mark Ferber rounds out the ensemble's broad-shouldered yet piano-shy rhythm section (Ellington's orchestra always made room for a piano).
Baron's muted trombone is showcased on "Jack the Bear" (with splendid brushwork by Ferber and resonant bass courtesy of Lett), and he solos (muted or open) on seven other numbers. Edkins and Pinter have their shining moments too, as do trumpeters Ron Stout and Tim Hagans, trombonists Dave Woodley and Les Benedict, baritone Adam Schroeder and clarinetist Danny House (superb on a rapid-fire "Perdido"). Speaking of tempos, Masters is pretty much content to leave them be, as Ellington and Strayhorn were squarely on target the first time around, and bonus points are not given for fixing something that isn't broken.
Instead, Masters centers his expertise on bringing these timeless themes up to date, which he does simply by trimming prudently around the edges, adding new-coined measures when necessary but generally letting the music speak for itself, which is a good thing, as neither Ellington nor Strayhorn needs a radical makeover. Masters does just enough to make this memorable music sparkle while recasting it in a contemporary framework. Well done.
All Too Soon; Duke’s Place; I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good); A Flower Is a Lovesome
Thing; What Am I Here For?; Jack the Bear; Perdido; Passion Flower; Take the ‘A’ Train; Ko-
Ko; Introduction to In a Mellotone; In a Mellotone.