A Swinging Travelogue, With Ellington as Guide

How Chinese is Duke Ellington’s ‘‘Chinoiserie,’‘ how African is his ‘‘Liberian Suite’‘? Do they become more so by a particularly forceful rendering of a little pentatonic melody, a particularly dense malleting of the tom-toms?

It’s imposible to quantify a tinge, and so these are the wrong questions to ask of his works based on foreign travel. What makes one successful, another infelicitous, always has to do with Ellington alone, and not the subjects of what he called his ‘‘tone parallels.’‘

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Saturday night program at Avery Fisher Hall, ‘‘Duke Goes Abroad: The International Ellington,’‘ isolated parts of his problematic travel suites and strung together a series of single pieces, out of chronological and geographical order. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Wynton Marsalis, was particularly well rehearsed for these 18 short tastes.

Mostly, the program had none of the eccentric cornerstones or the brilliant melodies of Ellingtonia; it was heavy on ostinato-driven pieces and strikingly written section-riffs. ‘‘Island Virgin’‘ is a lesser cousin of ‘‘Take the ‘A’ Train,’‘ though differently structured, and ‘‘Afro Bossa’‘ is strangely static, nearly all rhythm.

That’s a challenge; in a sense, these pieces are at the deepest heart of his idiom. Ellington’s foreign suites were pretty interior, buttonhole-camera shots of his own world: the buses, the hotel rooms, the million hands to shake.

The subject of ‘‘Northern Lights,’‘ from ‘‘The Queen’s Suite,’‘ might have been stargazing, but its quick, lone trickling figures across the band also sounded like raindrops down a window, and the whapping tuttis like windshield wipers. His celebratory music is justly famous, but nobody could set disorientation and boredom to music better than Ellington, and the orchestra got this dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go feeling just right.

The standouts of the program were the pieces that carved some excitement out of formula. ‘‘Oclupaca’‘ — from the underrated ‘‘Latin American Suite’‘ — began as a blues groove and flowered into swing, and it included the best solo of the night, when the unflappable alto saxophonist Sherman Irby used patience to defy melody and time, going against a routine reading.

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Similarly, in ‘‘Paris Stairs,’‘ Riley Mullins added bite to a silky group performance with quixotic trumpet growls, and the tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley (though he might have held back unnecessarily on his long feature in the modal ‘‘Chinoiserie’‘) stood out for a smooth and dynamic conception during a solo in the gorgeous ‘‘Tourist Point of View.’‘

by Ben Ratliff
Source: The New York Times

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