Single Petal of a Rose-- Duke Ellington Legacy

The nine-piece Duke Ellington Legacy is not one of those repertory bands that slavishly recreate original charts as authentically as possible, but is rather a group that puts its personal stamp on fresh arrangements that leave ample room for individual expression. The ensemble was founded in 2002 by guitarist Edward Kennedy Ellington II, Mercer's son and Duke's grandson. He brought in saxophonist Virginia Mayhew as leader and musical director, who in turn recruited her former teacher, the distinguished Norman Simmons to be the pianist and a principal arranger. For the Duke Ellington Legacy's rousing 2008 debut recording, Thank You Uncle Edward, guest artist Joe Temperley joined the core band, and now for the Single Petal of a Rose CD the invited participant on five tracks is the consistently persuasive tenorman Houston Person. Simmons is responsible for nine of the meaty arrangements, while Mayhew penned the other two. Except for a Simmons blues and Avery Parrish's classic, "After Hours," all the well-known tunes are from the Ellington and Strayhorn songbooks. In addition to Mayhew, Simmons, Ellington II, and Person, the musicians heard are trombonist Noah Bless, trumpeter Jami Dauber, bassist Tom DiCarlo, drummer Paul Wells, percussionist Sheila Earley, and vocalist Nancy Reed.

Simmons leads off the CD with a solo piano version of "Single Petal of a Rose" that fully captures both the delicacy and profound, subtle power of Duke's original 1959 recording for the Queen's Suite, making this one of its best interpretations to date. "Happy Go Lucky Local, also known as "Night Train," is graced by Simmons' lively arrangement that features an adamant, gutsy Person tenor solo, an exclamatory muted trumpet solo by Dauber, a jabbing Bless trombone spot, and Simmons' bluesy excursion. DiCarlo's resolute bass work throughout recalls the great Jimmy Blanton's tragically abbreviated tenure with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, although this particular tune was first introduced a few years after his death. Mayhew's stately clarinet is prominent in an out-of-the-ordinary, exotic-sounding Simmons orchestration of "In My Solitude." Reed's glowing, sinuous vocalizing, and Person's reverent, soulful improv, as well as his complementary obligattos, are essential ingredients of this supremely successful recipe.

Billy Strayhorn's gem of a tune, "Johnny Come Lately," goes Latin thanks to Mayhew's brilliant arrangement. The compelling solos by Simmons, Mayhew's tenor, and Bless maintain the Afro-Cuban spirit, while Wells and Earley perpetuate the zestful rhythmic pulse and escalate it during their dramatic drums and conga dialogue prior to the full band's reprise of the theme. Simmons' "Home Grown" allows the band the freedom to do some serious testifying, with no less than six members getting solo space. Person's statement is especially down-to-earth, but Simmons, Dauber, and Bless are not far behind. The interconnecting and/or interspersed vamps and riffs help flesh out this invigorating performance. Strayhorn's mesmerizing end-of-life composition "Blood Count" is primarily a setting for Bless's lush trombone, but Simmons' skillful arrangement provides ensemble passages of sublime elegance, as well as additional brief thematic opportunities for both Dauber and Mayhew.

The lyrics to Duke's old reliable, "In a Mellow Tone," are articulated by the assured, velvety voice of Reed, with the band's thrusting punctuations. An insinuating, stomping Person, and a forceful, soaring Dauber handle the solos before Reed wraps up this satisfying treatment. DiCarlo, Simmons, Mayhew, and Wells are given opportunities to expound during the course of Simmons' riveting arrangement of Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group," with the boisterous tenor of Mayhew arguably edging out the frolicking piano of Simmons. Reed's flirtatious, engaging vocal on "Squeeze Me" is enhanced by horn fills, and is succeeded by concise, neatly resolved solos from Person and Bless. Reed then scats effectively in a call-and-response interlude with the front line players before Mayhew and a muted Dauber vigorously complete the solo cycle prior to a return to the opening section headed by Reed.

For Strayhorn's enduring "Lush Life," Simmons sensitively conveys the verse while the full band briskly takes care of the rest. As for the solos, Simmons prances and Mayhew exults. DiCarlo and Wells also step out front convincingly during the ensemble's recitals of the theme, as this Simmons arrangement confirms that variety is indeed the spice of life. The popular "After Hours," first recorded by the Erskine Hawkins Big Band in 1940, was a unanimous choice by the Duke Ellington Legacy for inclusion on this CD. Simmons exudes the essence of Parrish's piano in his own inimitable manner, and his arrangement swings and sways infectiously, horns blaring in short outbursts as he tickles the ivories with eloquent flair. Reed gives an ardent, assured interpretation of Duke's signature "Love You Madly," and arranger Mayhew's tenor solo adds depth and substance to this focused treatment, as does Dauber's exuberant improvisation.

Much as it began, a definitive Simmons solo recital of "Lotus Blossom" concludes the CD, as he movingly and comprehensively delivers one of Strayhorn's most beautiful creations.

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Scott Albin