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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Don Mather, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby

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Duke Ellington: Four Symphonic Works

Nimbus NI 2511




1. Black, Brown and Beige Suite
2. Three Black Kings
3. New World A-Comin'
4. Harlem
Maurice Peress - Conductor
Frank Wess - Alto sax (track 1)
Richard Chamberlain - Trombone (track 1)
Jimmy Heath - Tenor and soprano saxes (track 2)
Roland Hanna - Piano (track 3)
Stephen Hart - Clarinet (track 3)
Jon Faddis - Trumpet (track 4)
Bill Easley - Clarinet (track 4)
Ron Carter - Bass (track 4)
Butch Miles - Drums (track 4)


I tend to be wary of symphony orchestras playing works that were not originally designed for them. So I steer clear of albums with titles like "The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays Queen" as well as "classical" interpretations of jazz pieces. However, in the case of the CD at hand, the four Duke Ellington compositions were originally devised as large-scale pieces, even if not written for a symphony orchestra. Ellington wrote several such ambitious works, particularly for the concerts which his orchestra gave at Carnegie Hall in the 1940s.

My suspicious attitude towards "symphonic" performances of jazz pieces arises mainly from the simple fact that most symphony orchestras cannot "swing" in the way that is second nature to jazz musicians. Classically-trained musicians are taught to play exactly what is shown on the sheet music, whereas jazz players almost instinctively syncopate the beat to provide the characteristic feeling of jazz.

This reservation applies immediately to parts of the opening Black, Brown and Beige Suite, where the orchestra's attempts to play jazz sound jaunty or even laboured rather than swinging easily. This tendency is partly counteracted by the orchestra employing some experienced jazz musicians as soloists. Frank Wess is listed as playing the alto-sax solo for Come Sunday in the Black, Brown and Beige Suite (which consists of three of the original seven movements), although he is only heard briefly and is surrounded by sweeping strings.

Ellington devised Three Black Kings in 1973 for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but it was only in the form of a short score when Duke died a year later. It was completed by Duke's son, Mercer Ellington. Jimmy Heath's wailing soprano saxophone contributes strongly to the mood of the piece.

New World A-Comin' was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and it features Sir Roland Hanna in what is basically a piano concerto. Again, the string-heavy arrangement obscures the jazz feeling, although Hanna is allowed at improvise the cadenza towards the end.

Harlem is one of Ellington's finest works: a piece that vividly evokes the predominantly Black area of New York City. This is the most successful track on the album, probably because of the strength of Ellington's original writing, although the interpretation here cannot match the excitement of the Duke's own recordings of the piece.

The recording details on the sleeve are skimpy, although it appears that this album was originally released in 1989 by MusicMasters. The sound quality and balance are good, and I wish I liked this CD more. Yet none of the performances can bear comparison with the sound of the actual Duke Ellington Orchestra. Nevertheless, this recording will be valuable if it leads listeners to gain an inkling of Ellington's genius. It would be very satisfying if it makes lovers of "classical" music try listening to the Ellington band and realise that he was a serious composer of immense stature and unmatched invention.

Tony Augarde






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