Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra and “The Sound of Surprise”

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Whitney Balliett, one of Jazz’s most eloquent chroniclers, once characterized Jazz as being “The Sound of Surprise.”

And so it was for me – a joyful surprise - with my first listening of The Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra’s Single Petal of a Rose which was released on June 5, 2012 on Renma Recordings [6403 CD].

By way of background, The Duke Ellington Legacy is a nine-piece group founded by Edward Kennedy Ellington II, Duke’s grandson, and the band’s guitarist.

Edward chose saxophonist Virginia Mayhew to lead and serve as musical director of the band and Virginia staffed it, beginning with pianist Norman Simmons who has a long and distinguished career performing with many Jazz luminaries, most particularly serving as the accompanist for vocalists Carmen McRae, Joe Williams and Betty Carter.

Virginia and Norman share the arranging duties for The Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra and their scoring talents help present Duke’s music in new, musical settings.

Duke once said that music is beyond category and falls into two groups: good music and bad music.

The music on Single Petal of a Rose is good music as are the musicians who perform it.

Equally important is that they have the ability to fashion their own musical personalities into a coherent and cohesive group, a quality which Duke Ellington prized. 

While he loved the individual voices of some of his legendary band members such as trumpeters Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart and Clark Terry, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, the Duke needed them to blend-as-one because the orchestra en toto was his instrument.

Credit for melding the sound of The Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra into a consistent whole begins with trumpeter [and flugelhornist] Jami Dauber, whose attack, phrasing and dynamics forms the basis for the manner in which the band articulates the arrangements.

There was no greater admirer of Duke’s music than bassist Charles Mingus who often anchored his own group’s compositions with the playing of trombonist Jimmy Knepper.

Charles would have loved The Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra’s trombonist Noah Bless who brings not only Knepper’s spirit to mind while taking care of brass bass clef business for the group, but also those of Ellington stalwart bone players such as “Tricky Sam” Lofton, Lawrence Brown and Britt Woodman.

Speaking of Mingus, the Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra’s other bass clef role is in the capable hands of bassist Tom DiCarlo, whose playing is suggestive of the big sound and expressiveness of two of today’s Young Lions on the instrument: John Patitucci and Christian McBride.

If you ever wondered with the Duke’s music might sound like complimented by the polyrhythms of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, all you need do is listen to Paul Wells whose drumming with the Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra’s provides these elements plus the sounds of a very contemporary drum kit.

Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew has a big, throaty tone on tenor and when she combines it in unison phrasing with trumpeter Dauber and trombonist Bless, it echoes the sound of Wayner Shorter-Freddie Hubbard-Curtis Fuller version of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to Duke’s music [checkout the shout chorus that close-out the Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra’s version of Upper Manhattan Medical Group].

It’s quite fitting that Kenny Burrell loaned Edward Kennedy Ellington II his guitar for the date because the latter’s note selection and placement are lean and propulsive in a style similar to the one that Kenny has literally hand-crafted over six decades of playing Jazz.

And then there is Norman Simmons on piano: lyrical, beautiful and always tastefully swinging. He reminds me so much of the late Tommy Flanagan and the late Hank Jones.

Many years ago when I was working at a club on the tri-corner of Columbus, Broadway and Grant in San Francisco, I and the pianist in the group would run down the street during our breaks to catch vocalist Carmen McRae at Sugar Hill.

Norman was backing Carmen and on the way back to our gig my pianist friend would reflect: “How does Norman do it? He doesn’t play the piano, he graces it. And he swings so beautifully … all the time!”

Thankfully, some things only get better with the passing of the years and Norman’s piano playing is one of them. In addition to being so superb on piano, Norman has also written the majority of the charts on the album.

Other “surprises” on Single Petal of a Rose include the sensitive percussion work of Shelia Earley, Nancy Reed’s marvelous vocals on In A Mellow Tone, Squeeze Me, and Love You Madly, and tenor saxophonist Houston Person’s special guest appearance on Norman’s composition, a blues entitled Home Grown and Duke’s In My Solitude.”

Shelia Elaine Anderson writes of Houston in her insert notes to the CD: “Houston’s big sound, improvisations and playfulness make listeners feel happy and reminds them of what Jazz is.”

More details including websites and order information about The Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra’s Single Petal of a Rose are contained in the following News Release which was developed by Ann Braithwaite, Nancy Hudgins and the fine team at Braithwaite & Katz, Communications.

If you are in the mood for surprises, you’ll be delighted by the music on this disc.

"This band breathes new life into Duke Ellington's treasured, voluminous canon."
— Joseph Blake, Times Colonist
"...sounds as classic as the day Duke Ellington gave his music birth, while still sounding like a contemporary jazz band..."
- Susan Frances,

Almost four decades after Duke Ellington's passing, he looms larger than ever as a singular giant of American music. With Single Petal of a Rose, slated for release on June 5 on Renma Recordings, the talent-laden Duke Ellington Legacy offers an insightful, often-breathtaking tour through a program of masterpieces by Ellington and his inimitable creative partner, Billy Strayhorn.

A nine-piece multi-generational ensemble founded by guitarist Edward Kennedy Ellington II, Duke's grandson, the Duke Ellington Legacy doesn't attempt to replicate the Ellington Orchestra's sound (because really, who could?). Rather, the band explores sublime ballads, hard-charging flag wavers, lustrous tone poems, and sultry vocals, channeling an essentially Ellingtonian spirit from a contemporary perspective. With savvy music direction by saxophonist Virginia Mayhew and brilliant arrangements by the great Norman Simmons, who also handles piano duties with elegant authority, the band fully adheres to Duke's prime directive, swinging as if their lives depended on it.

"Before a concert I tell the band, let's make them want to dance," Simmons says. "People these days are afraid to move their bodies, but they can't help it when we get going."

Programmed with an ebb and flow similar to an Ellington Orchestra concert, the album opens and closes with ravishing solo piano renditions of "Single Petal" and "Lotus Blossom," delivered by Simmons with all the requisite love and tenderness. The session kicks into high gear with "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" a piece that premiered at Ellington's 1946 Carnegie Hall concert as the final movement of his "Deep South Suite." Houston Person's locomotive tenor solo is perfectly gauged to the swaggering mood of Ellington's most irrepressibly swinging train song.

"Houston has got his own sound and it's beautiful," Ellington says. "Our last album featured the great baritone saxophonist, Joe Temperley. Bringing in guests like that anchors the ensemble. They come in with such deep knowledge of the music."

"In My Solitude" offers Houston another ideal setting in which to shine as he provides empathic support for vocalist Nancy Reed. The big-toned tenor saxophonist has spent much of his career in intimate dialogue with jazz's greatest singers, most significantly during his three-decade creative partnership with the inimitable Etta Jones. Like the much-missed Jones, Reed is an underappreciated treasure who has collaborated with jazz masters such as pianist David Leonhardt, David "Fathead" Newman, Phil Woods, Dave Liebman, and Bob Dorough. Her lovely, clear tone and understated delivery make her an ideal vocalist for the Duke Ellington Legacy, whether she's bringing the mellow to "In A Mellow Tone," flirting playfully with Houston on "Squeeze Me," or convincingly delivering Duke's trademark catch phrase "Love You Madly" on a fine arrangement by Mayhew.

With four numbers to his direct credit, Strayhorn is well represented on Single Petal. Mayhew's inspired arrangement of "Johnny Come Lately", an expansive chart that features some particularly inspired tenor work by her, puts a Latin spin on the piece. Trombonist Noah Bless follows with a beautifully crafted solo, which builds to a percussion finale. Bless displays his expressive, singing tone on the aching ballad "Blood Count," while bassist Tom di Carlo propels the briskly swinging, typically ingenious "Upper Manhattan Medical Group" (often rendered as "UMMG"), which features another incisive Mayhew tenor solo.

"Ellington always featured his men, and that's something I work on," says Simmons.
"Duke was always very advanced with his harmonic structures, which provides the framework, and then for orchestration you're drawing on the colors in the band's palette, painting a picture."

The Duke Ellington Legacy was born out of the friendship between Mayhew and Edward Kennedy Ellington II, who met at the West Village jazz club Sweet Basil in the late 1980s. When Ellington approached her about launching a band with the support of the Duke Ellington Legacy, Virginia, having had studied and worked with Norman Simmons, knew Simmons would be an ideal musician for the group. In fact, Simmons has become the Legacy's heart and soul.

It's hard to overstate the depth of experience Norman Simmons brings to the Duke Ellington Legacy. A Chicago native, he was weaned on the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which he heard as a child from a neighbor's radio. As a teenager in the mid-1940s he caught the band at the Regal Theater when Sonny Greer still presided from his giant drum kit. After graduating from the Chicago School of Music, Simmons cut his teeth in the mid-1950s as the house pianist at the Beehive, where he worked with jazz icons such as Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Wardell Gray. Convinced by Ernestine Anderson to move to New York City in 1959, he quickly gained recognition as an exceptional accompanist. Over the years he put in significant stints with Dakota Staton, Carmen McRae, and Joe Williams. Working as an arranger for Riverside Records, Simmons was responsible for classic sessions with Johnny Griffin (including "The Big Soul-Band") and toured widely with the Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis/Johnny Griffin Quintet. At 81, he continues to accompany and arrange for various artists and leads his own band.

Mayhew's affinity for veteran jazz masters has been apparent since she established herself on the New York scene in the Iate1980s. A savvy bandleader, commanding saxophonist and respected arranger, she has performed with legends such as Earl "Fatha" Mines, Al Grey, Junior Mance, Doc Cheatham, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, and Chico O'Farrill, and Toshiko Akiyoshi. With six acclaimed CDs under her own name, Mayhew recently completed a recording focusing on the music of Mary Lou Williams. She is also part of another revelatory Ellington project, Dreamin' the Duke, featuring jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon and classical soprano Harolyn Blackwell.

Edward Ellington II got a very close look at the life of touring musician as a child. Over the years he occasionally joined his grandfather on the road with the orchestra, and after Duke's passing he joined his father, Mercer Ellington, as guitarist and roadie in the new Ellington orchestra. After five years, he gave up performing and didn't return to the stage for two decades, when he and Mayhew launched the Duke Ellington Legacy in 2002. Since then the group has performed widely and recorded the critically praised 2008 album Thank You Uncle Edward (Renma Recordings).
While Duke Ellington's canon needs no defenders, Single Petal of a Rose makes an incontrovertible case for the Duke Ellington Legacy as inspired torchbearers.

"The key thing is we're not just playing Ellington arrangements," Ellington says.
"These are fresh arrangements reflecting new influences, and that's the point."