Classical Music Review: New Releases

Tribute To Ellington - Daniel Barenboim, et al. Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me; Satin Doll; Sophisticated Lady; Caravan; Don't Get Around Much Anymore; Azure; Squatty Roo; Prelude To A Kiss; Mood Indigo / Purple Gazelle; Chelsea Bridge; Star-Crossed Lovers; Zweet Zurzday; Take The 'A' Train; In A Sentimental Mood; Fast & Furious.  Daniel Barenboim, piano; Larry Combs, sax; Burl Lane, sax; John Hagstrom, trumpet; Amir El Saffar, trumpet & flugelhorn; Dave Clevenger, horn; Michael Mulcahy, trombone; Charles Vernon, trombone; Brad Opland, bass; Charlie Harrison, electric guitar; Joel Spencer, drums & percussion; Kyle Woodring, percussion.  With Dianne Reeves, vocals and Don Byron, clarinet.  Teldec.

Crossing over is both a marketing tool and a sincere attempt by musicians to try something new.  Many have dipped their toes in unfamiliar waters.  We've had opera stars Te Kanawa and Hampson singing show tones, and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, doing Puccini, beautifully, at the Grammys.

Composer Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was accused of abandoning jazz when he and his band "crossed over" into large-form classical music with his first extended work, Black, Brown and Beige, which they gave at Carnegie Hall in 1943.  But this pioneering musician, whose centennial year was celebrated worldwide in 1999, considered his work to be "beyond catagory."  As such, it's available to everybody, even French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who made a technically faultless but pretty lackluster Ellington CD last year.  The missing ingredients were passion and real sympathy.  And if Ellington's music doesn't feel spontaneous, what's the point?

Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who succeeded Solti as music director of the Chicago Symphony in 1991, is a big name in the classical music world and one of the best Mozart players around.  And he's certainly gotten the point of the music in the new Teldec Tribute To Ellington, where he serves as pianist on all 15 numbers.  He's joined here by six members of his orchestra, including famed French horn Dale Clevenger and principal clarinet Larry Combs, who doubles on sax.  Jazz diva Dianne Reeves and star clarinetist-composer Don Byron and five Chicago Jazz artists complete the mix.  Nobody sounds like they're slumming, and there'ss not a false note in the arrangements made by conductor Cliff Colnot, who works with the Chicago Symphony and its training orchestra, and directs the University of Chicago's new music group.  In transcribing the original recordings, he doesn't dilute any of Ellington's thrilling and seductive colors, and there are plenty here.

Like all good arrangements, they reveal the music.  Tow of the most spectacular are "Caravan" (1936, co-written with Duke's trombonist Juan Tizol) with Joel Spencer's driving tom-tom solo and growling muted brass, and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (1940) with its stunningly voiced harmonies, striking range of textures, and razor sharp attacks.  "Zweet Zurzday" (1960) from Suite Thursday, which Ellington co-wrote with his "composing companion" Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), gets as much atmosphere from Spencer's steady locomotive pulse as it does from Byron's fluid playing.

Colnot combines the 1930 standard "Mood Indigo" with the 1960 "Purple Gazelle" (from Duke's Afro Bossa LP) to striking emotional and coloristic effect.  All of the other selections, including "Sophisticated Lady" (1932) and "Prelude To A Kiss" (1938), are wonderful, too.  Dianne Reeves continues the tradition established by Ella Fitzgerald of letting the tiniest gesture speak volumes.  Barenboim sounds truely inspired, as does everybody else.

Ellington's works combine drama and meditation in equal parts, and "they can," as Duke scholar and composer Gunther Schuller has written, "in performances by fine musicians with fine ears, not only re-create the original, but bring it to an excitement and drive that has its own validity."  All you have to do is listen.

-Michael McDonagh
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