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TJI Ellington Big Band at Musical Instrument Museum

Patricia Myers By
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TJI Ellington Big Band
Musical Instrument Museum
Phoenix, Arizona
January 14, 2014

The Ellington Big Band of the Tucson Jazz Institute delivered an ambitious repertoire that ranged from Wynton Marsalis's complex "The Tree of Freedom" to a Pat Metheny chart, with plenty of Ellingtonia in between. This high school band was a three-peat winner of the "Essentially Ellington" competitions in 2010, 2012 and 2013 for "Best Community High School Jazz Band," and will try for number four in May, said director Doug Tidaback.

The high-energy band showcased its standout members, including "tripler" Robbie Lee, who sings and plays piano and tenor sax, and lead trombonist Sam Chess, the only Arizona student selected for the Monterey Jazz Festival's 2013 Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. After the spring competition at New York's Lincoln Center, the TJI Ellington Band will tour Europe and perform at the Paris Jazz Festival.

The evening's selections were demanding, especially the dramatic horn solos within the complexity of Ellington's "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" (often performed by Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra). That ear-compelling arrangement featured four mellow clarinets and a trumpeter emitting high-register notes in the mode of Cat Anderson. Ellington's "Happy Go Lucky Local" was sparked by several short horn solos, a vintage-emulating clarinet feature and the brass sections quoting "Night Train."

Lee invested his delicious baritone voice in "I Like the Sunrise," from Ellington's 1947 "Liberian Suite," with accents by muted trumpet, plunger trombone and two baritone saxophones. The vitality of Marsalis' "The Tree of Freedom," from his "Vitoria Suite," offered flamenco-meets-fusion-meets-swing. The exciting arrangement merged hand-clapping elements with swirls of clarinets, soprano and baritone saxophones, flutes and even a bass clarinet. Guitarist Metheny's "Minuano" was a jazz-fusion excursion with minor piano moves and wordless vocals by band members against the Brazilian rhythm; oddly, there was no guitar solo.

Surprisingly, the Ellington band's set opened and closed with Count Basie hits, launched with the shuffle-swing of Benny Carter's "Vine Street Rumble." Tenor sax and piano solos were accented by the brass and reeds sections delivering bits of "Moten Swing" as other band members sang "All Night Long," in reference to the Kansas City era.

The closing selection of Basie's "Splanky" served as a jam opportunity for five students from the evening's opening band, the Highland High School Jazz Black. But the audience wanted more, so Tidaback complied with an encore featuring vocalist Lee on Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," rendered in growly, Satchmo-style, prompting a standing ovation from the audience of 300.

That high school ensemble opened with Toshiko Akiyoshi's "Tuning Up" before swinging hard on "April in Paris" via its six-saxophone section. Next was the funky "It Happened on Cooper Street," evincing the "breakbeat" drums-bass groove popularized by soul singer James Brown. The set closed with the bebop energy of Lee Morgan's "Dizzy Atmosphere." TJI's Basie Band came on next to perform the cool West Coast sound of Shorty Rogers' "Bluesies," via six trumpets and a seven-sax section that subsequently delivered more of the "Essentially Ellington" book, many Basie band members also playing in the Ellington ensemble.

TJI's 11-year-old program starts involving students in the fourth and fifth grades. All three bands' individual soloists and solid section work was of a high level of expertise for musicians still in their teens, which portends well for the future of jazz.

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