From Duke Ellington, Themes for the Movies

Immersing oneself in the music of Duke Ellington gives the sense that he did everything that could possibly be done in jazz. His body of work, which starts in 1923 and ends in 1974, is so loaded with ideas that new movement after new movement in jazz could be sustained by continuing down avenues where he ventured for just a few blocks but then went on to something else. Mr. Ellington was restless, and it made his music fertile.

Mr. Ellington’s endless searching and resourcefulness was made clear in “Duke in Hollywood: An Evening of Ellington’s Film Music,” Jazz at Lincoln Center’s exceptional concert on Saturday at Alice Tully Hall. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, whose strength is Ellington’s music, performed five pieces Mr. Ellington wrote for film, starting in 1930 with “Old Man Blues” and ending in 1968 with the rarely heard “Degas Suite.” Each was loaded with Mr. Ellington’s spectacular absorptive and creative imagination.

Three trombones improvised together in “Symphony in Black.” The Degas suite pitted simultaneous clarinet and trumpet improvisations against each other. Mr. Ellington voiced a chord with one muted trumpet and a few saxophones. The bass was bowed for a melody; the pieces regularly changed tempos. The piano sometimes didn’t play. Some solos were short, others marathons, and written be-bop lines charged through “Asphalt Jungle Suite.” Mr. Ellington used superimposed harmonies in which apparently contradictory chords sat on each other, brooding in dissonance. And he changed textures and keys so quickly the movement might not have happened at all.

Through it all was Mr. Ellington’s concern with the blues, which showed up in all sorts of varieties and dress through the suites, and his expression of black American culture. The concert began with “Symphony in Black” (1934), a precedent to “Black, Brown and Beige,” contrasting the saxophonist Wess Anderson’s Johnny Hodges-style cool with the heat of Art Baron’s trombone. That moved into dance rhythms, with the bassist Reginald Veal plucking strings and the trumpeter Marcus Printup blasting away, always suggesting the blues.

The concert ended with the “Asphalt Jungle Suite,” which brought down the house with a straightforward blues and a long improvisation by the young tenor saxophonist Steve Riley, whom the orchestra’s conductor, Wynton Marsalis, has been grooming. Mr. Riley, 21, is a student of the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, and his slippery choruses on the blues grew in intensity each time around; the band members, grinning, followed each one as if they were listening to a story. The audience gave Mr. Riley a standing ovation.

Several guests performed stunning stints. During “Symphony in Black,” the young singer Madeleine Peyroux sang a blues called “Saddest Tale”; she might as well have been channeling Billie Holiday, who performed on the original recording. But she did it so faultlessly and with such impeccable time that she shocked the audience. And the violinist Charles Burnham appeared to perform the “Low Key Lightly” section of a truncated and reorganized “Anatomy of a Murder,” adding delicate traceries to the melody, and using the dry tone of the original violinist on the recording, Ray Nance.

During “The Degas Suite,” one of the band’s pianists, Renee Rosnes, performed the piano parts and improvisations with such grace and understanding that she, too, received a standing ovation.

Ms. Rosnes has spent time with Mr. Ellington’s piano-playing, and she went after his narrative sense, using sudden double-handed eruptions contrasted against a few notes. She rumbled a bit in the lower register and added her own be-bop phrases and blues ideas. She was genuinely improvising, all the while keeping her eye on Mr. Ellington’s achievement, and the audience recognized her abilities.

by Peter Watrous
Source: The New York Times

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