Duke Ellington Orchestra at Arizona Musicfest

By Patricia Myers:
The Duke Ellington Orchestra delivered a solid mix of swing and ballads from the colossal repertoire of its namesake and his gifted composing colleague, Billy Strayhorn. The enduring sophistication of their collaborative creativity was interpreted by a coalition of exceptional musicians. As soon as the band launched the concert with the most famous Ellington chart, “Take the A Train,”  the Arizona Musicfest audience of 1,000 became immediately engaged.

What followed was a satisfying mix of popular favorites and several lesser-known compositions in the symphonic-style that Ellington often favored. The orchestra’s diverse book provided a balanced fare of foot-tapping rhythms and burning solos. Charts ranged from the familiar “Satin Doll,” “In a Mellow Tone” and “Caravan” to the more complicated and classically influenced harmonies of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and both “Ahmad” and “Isfahan” from “The Far East Suite.”

Outstanding solos were delivered in the style of long-ago Ellington musicians. Among those were high-note trumpeter Ravi Best on “Such Sweet Thunder” (Cat Anderson) and torrid tenor saxophonist Shelley Carroll on “In a Sentimental Mood” (Ben Webster). Baritone saxophonist Morgan Price tenderly executed the always-sensual “Sophisticated Lady,” complete with the memorable opening slide into the melody.

The brass sections deftly altered the moods of “Such Sweet Thunder,” “Cotton Club Stomp” and “Johnny Come Lately” by employing a mixture of mutes (straight, cup, Harmon wah-wah and plunger) with lead trumpeter Kevin Bryan dazzling throughout.

Ballad renditions were particularly well-performed, each featured soloist demonstrating a high level of controlled delicacy on “Mood Indigo” and “In My Solitude,” also the intricacies of changing tempos on “The Eighth Veil.” The power of “Caravan” felt like an electrical charge, later contrasted by the moody depth of Strayhorn’s poignant “Blood Count.”

The orchestra leader, alto saxophonist Charlie Young, directed from his position in the reeds section. His spectacular alto replicated a Johnny Hodges-vibrato for a medley of “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”


The most intriguing chart was “Jack the Bear,” written in 1940 to feature Ellington’s hard-swinging bassist Jimmy Blanton with an ingenious mix of the 32-bar song form with blues choruses. It was stunningly performed by bassist Hassan (JJ Wiggins) Shakur, son of the late pianist Gerry Wiggins, who enlivened the melody with multiple musical quotes including “On Broadway,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “The Entertainer” and the familiar intro to “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” (created by longtime Los Angeles studio musician Chuck Berghofer).


But it was “Cottontail” that offered the most memorable sound and sight: All five saxophones were up front, playing soliduets as well as in full ensemble, a 1940s predecessor of Supersax. Throughout, the rhythm section of Ash-Shakur, pianist Robert Redd (Keter Betts Trio, 1992-2005) and drummer Marty Morell (Bill Evans Trio, 1968-74) was solidly well-meshed in the swinging drive that supported and propelled the orchestra throughout.


The concert was a treasure trove of the Ellington legacy of elegant music that, four decades after his demise, continues to cast a spell over listeners. The Feb. 6 concert was part of the 24th annual Arizona Musicfest series at Highlands Church in north Scottsdale.

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