Thank You Uncle Edward
Technically, it’s “Grandpa Edward”: Guitarist Edward Kennedy Ellington II, who conceived the tribute band known as the Duke Ellington Legacy in 2004, is the Maestro’s grandson.
Ellington II appointed tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew to serve as bandleader and co-arranger (along with pianist Norman Simmons), and it was a savvy choice. With her burnished tone, whip-smart rhythmic acuity and swing, and overall stylistic elegance, Mayhew invokes both Duke’s spirit and his actual musical oeuvre with effortless grace. Her compatriots are equally adept, and several have Hall of Fame pedigrees. Simmons’ past affiliations include Pres, Bird, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge, among others. Baritone saxist Joe Temperley (Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis) specializes in invoking (but not slavishly imitating) Harry Carney, whom he replaced in Mercer Ellington’s big band in 1974.
The set includes immediately recognizable standards (“Perdido,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” a rhumbafied “Caravan”), as well as offerings (“Pretty Woman,” “Isfahan,” “Day Dream,” Mercer’s “Moon Mist”) that may be more familiar to aficionados. A delightfully boppish Mayhew original titled “Toe Tickler” rounds out the program. The arrangements reflect Duke’s tastes and ideas, but Mayhew and Simmons have avoided moldy-fig replication. Appropriately, Simmons’ piano work both complements and goads his bandmates without hogging center-stage: Duke’s keyboard conceptions exemplified the truism that the piano is a rhythm instrument as well as a melodic one, and this understanding is integral to Simmons’ approach as well.
Ironically, the only element that might be considered a downside also represents, at least arguably, a slice of “authentic” Ellingtonia: the presence of a less-than-stellar vocalist. Nancy Reed has an agreeably dusky timbre and her intonation is sure, but her melodic and emotional range sometimes seems constricted. Oddly, she’s most effective on the challenging, proto-bebop “Cottontail,” on which she delivers Jon Hendricks’ slyly subversive vocalese lyrics with an impish suppleness that seems to elude her elsewhere.
Does a set such as this, which uses the music mostly as a vehicle for looking fondly back instead of moving boldly forward, represent the most appropriate tribute to a musical spirit as indefatigable and inventive as Ellington’s? That’s a matter of opinion. On its own terms, though, there’s more than enough first-rate musicianship, jubilant swing and imaginative ebullience on hand to make this project a success.