Hey Duke!

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Milestone
ALBUM TITLE: David Matthews & the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra
PERFORMER: David Matthews (p), Lew Soloff, Ryan Kisor, Joe Shepley, Scott Wendholt (t), Jim Pugh, Larry Farrell, Birch Johnson (tb), David Taylor (btb), Fred Griffen, John Clark, Chris Comer (hn), Aaron Heick, Lawrence Feldman (ss, cl), Chris Hunter (as), Roger Rose
CATALOGUE NO: MCD 9320-2

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Several ongoing strands of big-band tradition continue to run through American jazz. David Matthews and his team of top-notch technicians represent the steely professionalism of the modern East Coast school – all glittering bark and bite with nary a part miscued or a section under-rehearsed. Matthews is no individualist, and he takes a fundamentally conservative line on whatever music he’s arranging, in this case eight chestnuts from the Duke Ellington book.

Yet he sets his men such formidable tasks of execution that simply following them through enormously detailed scores can be fascinating in itself. For one thing, he has the audacity to rescore Ellington with no real sax section on hand – there are no more than three reed players here at any one time, as compared with no fewer than 11 brass.

Ben Webster’s feature ‘Cotton Tail’ has no tenor saxophone, ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ is transformed into nine minutes of fastidiously detailed orchestration and ‘Mood Indigo’ gets an entirely improbable eight-beat treatment that manages usefully to ruffle the old tune’s feathers.

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Some of this is the sort of thing that impresses musicians more than listeners, but turning to ‘Come Sunday’, one of Ellington’s most appealing ‘sacred’ pieces, here given a demure yet oddly effective reading by vocalist Christine Sperry, reveals a sensitivity which is sometimes hidden elsewhere. And another change from the old days: the studio sound is spectacularly full and truthful. Richard Cook