Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mark Masters Ensemble, American Jazz Institute Presents Ellington Saxophone Encounters

Duke. We return to his music time and again to refresh ourselves at the fountain of brilliance. Of course there is the enormous body of recordings he left us. But there is also the furtherence of his compositions through present-day creations, re-creations and re-arrangements, live and in recorded form. There have been ups and down in this latter aspect of Ellingtonia in the past decades. Not everything done of course is brilliant, classic, or even necessary, and yet all homage to the master does him credit on one or more levels. So be it. While tributes to the Duke are commonplace, tributes to the music of his sidemen decidedly are not.

Happily today we have a modern encounter of the latter sort, both unusual and strongly musical in its final form. It is a collaboration between bandleader-arranger-composer Mark Masters and baritone master Gary Smulyan. The music is not that of Ellington per se but some worthy compositions by some of the seminal members of his sax/reed section over the years: Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Ben Webster and Harry Carney.

Masters arranged the numbers for what turns out to be a rather stellar cast of musicians: a sax section of Gary Smulyan, Pete Christlieb, Gary Foster, Don Shelton and Gene Cipriano, plus a great rhythm section: Bill Cunliffe, Tom Warrington and Joe LaBarbara.

Gary Smulyan in the principal soloist throughout and gives us another look at his essential baritonisms. But other soloists enter the fray with success as well. It's a repertoire of pieces both quite familiar ("Jeep's Blues," "Rockin' in Rhythm") and those less so.

Everything sparkles in the sax-rich arrangements and the musicians pull together to give you a full program of great sounds. This is something different and special in its own way. It will certainly be appreciated by all Ellingtonians out there. Good show.

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