by: Marilyn Lester
Echoes in Harlem: A Tribute to Duke Ellington at NJPAC
Most serious jazz musicians today will agree with the late jazz great, Miles Davis, when he said: “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” Bill Charlap, one of the most talented and exciting piano players of the jazz idiom, metaphorically has done just that with Echoes in Harlem: A Tribute to Duke Ellington at NJPAC.
With an assemblage of other top-notch, acutely talented musicians – Renee Rosnes on piano, Lewis Nash on drums, Peter Washington on bass, Steve Nelson on vibes, Sean Jones on trumpet, Houston Person on tenor sax, and Ernie Andrews vocals – Charlap put together a vibrant, swinging, toe-tapping evening of Ellington standards and equally important, but lesser known works.
The twin pianos of Charlap and Rosnes started the program with an extended version of “Love You Madly,” displaying a perfect stylistic integration of the piece’s medium bright jump tempo. The duo were followed by “Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool,” from Ellington’s 1958 Newport series, featuring trumpeter Sean Jones. Originally played by Shorty Baker, with a mute, Jones opened up the bell, moving from low notes to high wails with a command of his instrument that made his blowing seem utterly effortless. Jones also exhibited his awesome chops later in the program with Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G” (Upper Manhattan Medical Group).
Another of Ellington’s lesser known works, “Fleurette Africaine,” from the famous 1962 post-bop album, Money Jungle, was fluidly played by Renee Rosnes and vibes man Steve Nelson. The ballad was originally recorded for piano, bass and drums (Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach), but it’s absolutely perfect for vibes. Nelson took complete possession of the piece with his elegant and easy mallet style.
Charlap’s lead piano with Jones, Washington and Nash on “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing” was aptly swinging, wailing and up tempo to the max. Charlap’s “full body playing” makes obvious why the man is so good at his craft – he really gets into the music. Charlap is in the zone when he plays. He’s not just playing the notes, he’s feeling them.
A great pianist also knows how to fade out and let his virtuosos have their turn. So it was for veteran vocalist Ernie Andrews, who at 86 years young, has been steadily working in the music business for over 60 years. Andrews sang a medley of Ellington hits, including “Satin Doll,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and Billy Strayhorn’s iconic, “Take The A Train,” which began as a slow ballad and morphed with a humorous bridge into the spirited classic we know it to be. Later in the program, Andrews sang the beautiful but lesser known ballad, “Don’t You Know I Care.” The vocal chords may not be what they were 60 years ago, but the style, interpretation and the love is as strong as ever.
Renowned tenor saxophonist, Houston Person, teamed with Bill Charlap on the piano for a evocative version of the much-performed “In My Solitude,” Ellington’s 1934 jazz standard, first recorded with clarinetist Barney Bigard doubling on the tenor sax. “Solitude” was written by Ellington in 20 minutes as an “add-on” for a recording session in Chicago. Played and sung hundreds upon hundreds of times over the years, this Charlap-Person version was as fresh as the day the tune was composed.
Among the many other great Ellington works performed during the program was the finale number, “I’m Just A Lucky So and So,” composed in 1945 (lyrics by Mack David). With all hands on deck, this easy-going ballad was a fitting ending to an inspired evening. The combined talent of Bill Charlap and company left everyone in this responsive and well-pleased audience feeling like a big bunch of lucky so and sos.
Jazz Songbook with Bill Charlap, Echoes in Harlem: A Tribute to Duke Ellington at the Victoria Theater, NJPAC, April 5, 2014. New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center St., Newark, NJ 07102, 973-642-8989, www.njpac.org