Delfeayo Marsalis struts his trombonist-arranger chops while paying tribute to Duke Ellington’s 1957 tribute to William Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder, joined by a rotating cast including his saxophonist brother Branford and piano standout Mulgrew Miller. It’s a daring project, which at least one prominent figure is already on record politely objecting to. Credit Marsalis for printing Gunther Schuller’s misgivings in the album’s liner notes. Schuller calls what Marsalis has brought forth “a good effort,” but also writes, “My profound admiration and love for Duke’s music make me want to protect it from any diminishment of its true greatness. … As great as your musicians are in their respective ways, collectively, you cannot match the warmth, fullness, richness of the Ellington sound, the Ellington character.”
That Marsalis published Schuller’s letter suggests he at least partially agrees. Yet there’s also much here for Marsalis to be proud of. The album opens with “Such Sweet Thunder,” with Branford offering a joyously old-timey soprano sax solo recalling his earlier homage to Romare Bearden. Delfeayo follows with a nod to Dickie Wells, and Miller offers elegantly bluesy piano. “Sonnet for Sister Kate” showcases the leader’s muted trombone and Jason Marshall’s bass clarinet. Victor Goines’ soprano sax plays the jester on “Up & Down, Up & Down,” while referencing the part’s puckish originator, trumpeter Clark Terry. Mark Gross channels Johnny Hodges’ alto sax on “Star-Crossed Lovers,” Delfeayo taking the Romeo role. More modern turns include Branford’s snake-charmer celebration of Cleopatra on “Half the Fun,” his tour de force on “Sonnet for Caesar,” and Mark Shim’s brisk tenor sax on “Sonnet for Hank Cinq.” It may not measure up to Ellington’s own take on the material, but, after all, who could?