Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Portraits By Ellington (1992)

Picked this up because I'm going to see this outfit next week. Have one of the LCJO's albums, which I bought after seeing them once in '95 or so, and I always meant to pick this one up.

It was recorded live in 1991. It's old: back from when the LCJO was concentrating on (re)establishing Duke at the head of the classic jazz canon. Back when it was still concentrating on trying to (as Stanley Crouch put it in the notes to their next release) "create a viable jazz canon." I'm sure that's still one of their goals, but now they've moved on to include other composers. Duke's place is secure.

The whole album's good listening, but the centerpiece and masterpiece is the "Liberian Suite." Jaw-dropping, this. Twenty-seven minutes of slow-burn soul. What instrumentation! Solos for vocalist (Milt Grayson, sounding like a bow-tied version of Leon Thomas), clarinet, vibes, violin, and timpani, in addition to the standard saxes and brass (the best trumpet solo on the record, by the way, isn't by Wynton Marsalis: it's by Lew Soloff, in the suite).

And each one of these unusual instruments cuts deeper than the last. By the time you get to the timpani (yes, timpani) solo, you've been so worked over, body and soul, that the timpani doesn't have to thunder. It whispers. Who would've thought a timpani could make you want ot cry? This one does.

The only way to really judge this record would be with knowledge of Duke's original versions of these tunes. Not an easy thing, since many of these are rather obscure pieces, at least to a novice like me. I know I love what I'm hearing, but I haven't heard an Ellington recording of "Liberian Suite," so I don't know if what I'm loving is the performance or the composition. At this point I guess it doesn't matter. I think Duke's will be my next acquisition, which is probably mostly what LCJO was aiming for here.

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