An Ellington of Short Takes

The career of Duke Ellington is wonderfully logical; each successive step brings more resources to the music, so that it becomes richer and more varied, sometimes in surprising ways.

On Thursday night at Alice Tully Hall, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, as a part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, celebrated the period of Ellington’s career that started in 1939 and ended in 1942. Those years were an especially fertile time for Ellington. His collaborations with Billy Strayhorn were reaching a new level, and his band included the saxophonist Ben Webster and the bassist Jimmy Blanton. The music, often heard in three-minute compositions, is immensely sophisticated, and even within the confines of the three-minute form it sounds unconfined.

Take ‘‘Ko Ko,’‘ Ellington’s blues from 1940. In the hands of the pianist John Lewis, who conducted the orchestra with subtlety and power, the piece took on its original complexity, piling harmonies on top of harmonies, and the melodies and counter melodies that rustle below the surface of the brass were perfectly articulated. Mr. Lewis let the band rock a bit, encouraging a sense of euphoria, and the piece, a prime example of American modernism, bristled with experimentation and a dance logic.

Mr. Lewis may be the perfect conductor of this epoch of Ellington in repertory, in part because he heard the band in question in 1939 and 1940, but also because his own sense of moderation is equal to Ellington’s. For his reading of the pop song ‘‘Chloe,’‘ arranged by Ellington, he had the band clearly articulate the changing textures of the piece, from the quietude of the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon playing against the rhythm section to the smoothness of the full band. He regularly let Mr. Gordon, who played with a mute and plunger, take on the role of Tricky Sam Nanton, ripping ideas through the cloth of the orchestra. Mr. Gordon was the star of the show, using rhythmically sure ideas and repetitions through his solos.

The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who usually conducts the orchestra, came out to take on the role of Cootie Williams, one of Ellington’s more important trumpeters, for ‘‘Concerto for Cootie,’‘ growling and talking through the performance, taking off his mute and plunger for a central theme.

Mr. Lewis also expanded some of the improvisational sections. In ‘‘Cottontail’‘ there were solos by three tenor saxophonists, Loren Schoenburg, Victor Goines and Walter Blanding Jr. In ‘‘Sepia Panorama,’‘ Mr. Lewis let the trio solo at will. Even the set improvisations — Ray Nance’s solo on ‘‘Take the A Train,’‘ Ben Webster’s on ‘‘Cottontail’‘ — were paraphrased at best, and the trumpeter Ryan Kisor’s solo, a far departure from Mr. Nance’s, enriched the performance. The concert will be repeated tonight.

by Peter Watrous
Source: The New York Times

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