Ellington: Black, Brown and Beige

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COMPOSERS: Duke Ellington
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Ellington: Black, Brown and Beige
WORKS: Black, Brown and Beige – suite (orch. Peress); Harlem (orch. Peress); Thee Black Kings – ballet (completed Mercer Ellington); The River – suite (orch. Collier); Stayhorn: Take the ‘A’ Train (arr. Ellington)
PERFORMER: Tony Di Lorenzo (trumpet), Sal Andolina (clarinet, alto sax), Amy Licata (violin); Buffalo Philharmonic/JoAnn Falletta
CATALOGUE NO: 8559737

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Asked if his concert works were really ‘jazz’, Duke Ellington retorted, ‘I don’t see how this thing called jazz takes precedence over me.’ For him, music was either good or bad: the suites and tone poems of his later years were simply an extension of his art, and this new set of Ellington compositions by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic shows the ducal legacy right at home in the concert hall.

While arranged for symphony orchestra by other hands, the pieces all display Ellington’s genius for captivating melodies, dramatic effect and surging energy. The Buffalo forces deliver his portrait of Harlem with bounce and brio, though probably only the Ellington band could fully convey the effortless elegance of its central theme. Similarly, his magnum opus Black, Brown and Beige shines in its orchestral setting, even without such legendary solo voices as altoist Johnny Hodges.

Three Black Kings culminates in a tribute to Martin Luther King, a gospel-tinged waltz which rises to a soaring climax, while The River wends its way from a romantic habanera to a swinging blues. And a free-wheeling Take the ‘A’ Train proves that, these days, a well-equipped symphony orchestra will contain some creditable improvisers too.

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Geoffrey Smith