Ellington on Monarch
Produced by pianist and keyboard player Mark Gasbarro, this centennial tribute to Duke Ellington aims too broad and proves a stretch for a fan of acoustic jazz. Ordinarily I wouldn't have gotten past the rock drums and electronic keyboard vamp that opens "La Plus Belle Africaine," the leadoff tune. But Dave Ellis' soprano saxophone lead and solo prove jazz-worthy despite the glitzy pop music sound of Gasbarro's nine-piece ensemble.
Things improve with "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and "Satin Doll." The former features Manhattan Transfer singer Janis Siegel with Ellis (on tenor), Gasbarro (on piano), bassist John Clayton, and drummer John Ferraro. The rhythm section stays aboard for the latter tune as Ellis switches to soprano and the time signature switches to three-four. Gasbarro gives an exotic modal twist to the tune's "A" section, and Ellis and Clayton offer strong solos.
A smooth-jazz version of "In a Mellotone" (with Gasbarro, Ellis, Ferraro, electric bassist Abraham Laboriel, and guitarist Carl Verheyen) is the most distasteful performance on the album. "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," with alto saxophonist Doug Norwine, is nearly as bad, although the melismatic Christian singer Kathy Troccoli partly redeems it.
Trumpeter Terrell Stafford appears on three cuts: "Creole Blues" (a duet with Gasbarro), "Echoes of Harlem" (a synthesizer-driven nonet performance), and "Caravan" (a cooking quintet jaunt). He solos brightly, although he recalls none of Ellington's famous trumpeters. In fact, little if anything on this album recalls the Ellington band except the tunes.
Siegel reappears on "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues," where she is both willowy and declamatory. Singer Rick Riso graces an agreeable, nouveau-swing version of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."
This album, with 15 musicians in various combinations and one foot in jazz, the other in pop-jazz, is a mixed bag. It's a mix that has limited appeal for me.