By Marilyn Lester
If the spirits of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and William “Count” Basie were listening in at The Count Meets the Duke, they must have been very well-pleased. This tight group of hand-picked artists – an “orchestra with no name,” lead by household name, Wynton Marsalis – presented Basie’s Kansas City Suite and Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige with superb musicality and finesse. The precision and quality of the band are owed largely to Marsalis, Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who is a tireless advocate of jazz education. This group of players were largely young musicians, the crème de la crème, who can look forward to stunning careers based on their present remarkable capacities.
As to the program, its title is somewhat of a misnomer in terms of tradition, although technically accurate. The legendary album, First Time! The Count Meets the Duke, recorded the combined orchestras of these two jazz icons in 1961. The eight tracks included tunes such as “Take the A Train,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and “Battle Royal.” In this version of Basie and Ellington, the presentation was divided into two parts. The first half of the program showcased bassist Benny Carter’s 1960 composition for the Count Basie Orchestra, Kansas City Suite. The suite is comprised of ten separate pieces, which pay tribute to the various K. C. clubs that were active when Basie was playing there. The Count’s players were known for hard-swing, which was never quite matched by this youthful band – which isn’t to say the quality of the music wasn’t exceptional. Rather, this undertaking was more a showcase of emerging talent, with most of the band members given featured solos on numbers including “Vine Street Rumble,” “The Wiggle Walk,” and “Rompin’ at the Reno.” Outstanding among these young players were tenor saxophonist, Julian Lee, and trombonist, Jeffery Miller. Two swing numbers, “Jackson County Jubilee” and “Blue Five Jive,” benefitted from solos from masters Wynton Marsalis on trumpet and Rodney Whitaker on bass, respectively. Particularly engaging too, were the slower numbers, the bluesy “Katy-Do,” and the ballad-like “Sunset Glow.”
In the enormous body of work that is Duke Ellington scholarship, Black, Brown and Beige holds a premiere place. When the work debuted at Carnegie Hall in January 1943 it was the Duke’s longest composition to date, and in its innovation and complexity was well ahead of its time. Ellington introduced it as “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America.” The piece was uniformly and unceremoniously panned by the critics. Thereafter, Ellington played individual pieces of the work, but never played it in its entirety again. Foregoing the trumpet seat for the conductor’s chair, Marsalis ably led the slightly reconfigured group through the intricacies of Ellington’s landmark work. He is to be commended for presenting all of “”B, B, & B” as it was intended to be heard.
Black‘s opening “Work Song” was dramatically introduced by drummer Sammy Miller. “Come Sunday” featured a brief but effective violin solo by Chase Potter and a superb alto sax solo by Patrick Bartley before ending with “Light.” In Brown, the lively “West Indian Dance” and “Emancipation Celebration” culminated in the plaintive “The Blues.” The vocal part of this number was performed by Brianna Thomas, whose musicality is undisputed, but whose light, almost ethereal voice is often at odds with earthy jazz and blues dynamics. Beige, is less musically developed than Black or Brown; Ellington was still working on it the night before its debut. It represents, in Ellington’s words, “the common view of the people of Harlem, and the little Harlems around the U.S.A., as just singing, dancing, and responding to the tom-toms.” There’s a waltz section, followed by “Sugar Hill Penthouse.” For the ending of Beige, Marsalis forwent the original for a 1963 modified version of the piece. Outstanding soloists in Beige included Julian Lee on tenor, and Ben Cohen on baritone sax. Special mentions go to the two pianists, who stood in for Count Basie: Isaiah J. Thompson, and Duke Ellington: Joel Wenhardt.
Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway/60 Street, NYC: The Count Meets the Duke, May 20, 2017 at 8 PM. www.jalc.org. 212-258-9800