Jazz's New Wing

Despite the tuxedos, the hall, and the occasion, reverence was not a problem at the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band's "Black, Brown and Beige and More: Happy Birthday Duke." In its fashion, it drew just as heady a bead on Ellington as the rousing David Murray concert in December; but it often missed the target. Of the new arrangements, two I'd like to hear again. You'd have to be awfully fundamentalist or humorless or both not to admire Jim McNeely's temerity in adapting "The Mooche," Ellington's most famously serpentine hoochie-coochie epic, to the precincts of cool jazz. As Britt Woodman imparted puckish plunger obbligatos, the cup-muted brasses took the winding theme slow and easy, for a contrast that was paralleled as Frank Wess offered soulful blues tenor and the ensemble coalesced in luscious Gil Evans sonorities (circa 1957). A dreamy passage led to plunger trumpet by Byron Stripling, who played with becoming reserve all evening. Because it worked, measure for measure, I never found myself comparing it to Ellington.

"Rockin' in Rhythm," also arranged by McNeely, was another matter; everything, from Renee Rosnes's insufficiently percussive piano intro to a merely attractive theme statement (cool, coy) to unmemorable solos and various self-conscious references reminded me of what wasn't there— for example, the Harry Carney clarinet solo. A pale rumination on a masterpiece, I thought, touching inadvertently on the relative merits of modernist originality and postmodernist refractions. On the other hand, Frank Foster hit a classicist triple with "Take the A Train," all '50s opulence, with pretty bone voicings, a good Carrie Smith vocal, and a fine chorus of high-pitched variations for the saxophones, punctuated by the gleaming brasses— the effect marred only by a protracted tag ending. Jimmy Heath added little to "Johnny Come Lately" (though Randy Brecker brought it fleetingly alive and Jon Faddis took it out with a Dizzy cadenza), and Randy Sandke dared too much in an incoherent medley of train songs, salvaged briefly by a solidly Dexter-ish Ralph Lalama tenor solo. It ended with the three-note Count Basie kicker— a joke, I guess, although it went over my head.

True-blue Ellington was heard during the second half, done full justice by conductor Maurice Peress. Black, Brown and Beige belongs to the realm of flawed masterpieces, like Eyeless in Gaza or For Whom the Bell Tolls, where an artist's best work goes toe-to-toe with his worst. But if BB&B lacks the formal discipline of Harlem or the obvious solutions of the suites, it dares far more, offering a procession of peaks that, though seemingly bound at times by nothing more than Elmer's, are so elevated that ungainly transitions are reduced to tolerable blips. The major problem is theatrical: a discursive and anticlimactic third act. Live with it. "Black" is marred only by a too-abrupt transition from the magnificent "Work Song" to the first swing passage. Peress has conducted BB&B on several occasions, but I've never heard him or any ensemble mine as much exuberance from "Work Song." Did he edit the trombone passage or did Dennis Wilson play it so well that the awkwardness of Tricky Sam Nanton's 1943 performance disappeared? One of the loveliest and most neglected passages in Ellington is the violin setup for "Come Sunday"— Eddie Venegas made it sing. Yet it was Jerry Dodgion who had you on the edge of your seat as he sculpted every note of the alto solo with a rhapsodic inspiration worthy of Johnny Hodges. Stripling, Wess, and Smith (she missed one word but bounced right back) rose to the occasion, with Faddis crowning the high notes and drummer Winard Harper helping Peress to keep the whole mechanism running as smoothly as an hourglass.

Faddis did a decent job reading the Ellington introductions to each episode, but if BB&B is to get more than one performance a decade, that responsibility should be assigned to a pro, as is the case with Copland's Lincoln Portrait. Peress made his case, and the Carnegie audience jumped to its feet and cheered. That's the sign of a living piece of music, and, heretical as it may sound (I didn't feel this way about his recording or earlier performances), I'd would rather hear him conduct BB&B in its present form— slightly tweaked from the original— with a great orchestra than listen to the 1943 performance. Nor will it surprise me if Higgins and Sickler someday make me forget Blue Note vinyl. Jazz repertory is no longer a movement; it is a permanent wing, like the avant-garde. There are no rules, only good intentions, successes and failures. Incidentally, I made up the stuff about Bach and Lincoln Center. But Deutsche Grammophon has now commissioned Billy Bragg and Wilco to devise settings for the cantatas Bach never completed.

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