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Ellington Saxophone Encounters-- Mark Masters Ensemble

Having already recorded tributes to Gil Evans, Jimmy Knepper, Clifford Brown, Lee Konitz, Gary McFarland, and Dewey Redman, bandleader and arranger Mark Masters now takes on Duke Ellington from a unique perspective. The focus is on the Ellington Orchestra's saxophone section, with compositions by Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Ben Webster, and Harry Carney, some of which were only performed by small groups outside of the Orchestra. A collaboration between Masters, who is also the director of the American Jazz Institute, and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, the saxophone section assembled here is a formidable one in its own right. Smulyan is joined by Pete Christlieb, Gary Foster, Don Shelton, and Gene Cipriano, with a rhythm section of pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Tom Warrington, and drummer Joe LaBarbera. As usual, Masters' arrangements are, no pun intended, masterful, and the ensemble executes them with great enthusiasm and flair.

"Esquire Swank" was co-composed by Hodges and Ellington, and was recorded by the Orchestra in 1946. Cunliffe's intro is Dukish and the riffing theme reading is smoothly resonant. Smulyan's solo is forcefully lyrical, while Cunliffe now prances in his own style. Christlieb's brawny tenor wails and shrieks in appealing fashion, and LaBarbera gets a chance to display his finesse and dexterity. Paul Gonsalves' "The Line-Up" comes from a 1960 session he led with several other Ellingtonians. Again Cunliffe sounds a bit like Duke in his opening solo before getting into his own swinging gear. This joltingly robust theme is elaborated on with gusto by Cipriano's tenor, Shelton's alto, a double dose of Smulyan, and Warrington's pulsating bass. Masters' arrangement is rich and diverse with its woven harmonies, vamps, and call and response interludes. "L.B. Blues," or "Lawrence Brown Blues" is a Hodges tune he recorded live in 1966 with Wild Bill Davis and trombonist Brown. This swaying B-flat blues finds Smulyan rolling and tumbling, Cunliffe in absorbing flight, Shelton silkily midway between Hodges and Benny Carter, and a storytelling Warrington taking a backseat to none of them.

Harry Carney's only album as a leader included the lovely original ballad "We're In Love Again" complete with a string arrangement. Smulyan has the stage with just the rhythm trio, and the profound depth of his tone and his warmth of expression carry the day in his exposition, sensitive solo, and skillfully realized coda. Jimmy Hamilton's "Ultra Blue" was played by the Orchestra on broadcasts in 1945. Smulyan handles the sophisticated melody before Foster's vibrant alto turn. Cunliffe, Smulyan, and Warrington also solo, with the baritone's enriched by periodic orchestral bursts. The closing written section blends in Smulyan prior to his reprise. Hodges recorded "Used to Be Duke" in 1954 with his own group. It's an infectious blues in C that gets a similar stomping treatment here, with resounding Smulyan, a Gonsalves-like Christlieb, and a surging Warrington in the solo spotlight.

"Jeep's Blues" is a well-known Hodges-Ellington head arrangement first recorded by the Orchestra in 1938. Always Hodges' feature, it's here portrayed by a simpatico Smulyan channeling Hodges alto phrasing on the bigger horn, as the band serenades him affirmatively. Although recorded for a 1960 Hodges album, Hamilton's "Get Ready" first appeared on a 1979 Hodges compilation. An E-flat blues, it opens with Shelton's swirling, polished clarinet improv, and the riffing theme allows for further Shelton exclamations. Cunliffe, Foster, Smulyan, and Warrington all deliver equally absorbing solos, with Smulyan again reaping the benefit of the ensemble's inspiring vamps. An elongated closing section offers more of the same for those who might wish to overindulge on this piece's riches. Ben Webster recorded his "Love's Away" in 1954 with a quartet that included Teddy Wilson, Ray Brown, and Jo Jones. Christlieb's tenor sings this sultry ballad above Masters' seductive horn obbligatos. His solo is accomplished, and Cunliffe makes an eloquent plea as well. The final unison group passages, and then Christlieb's reprise, accentuate the beauty of Webster's tune.

The Carney-Ellington classic, "Rockin' In Rhythm," was first recorded by Duke in 1931, and receives a repertory band run-through mostly faithful to the original arrangement. Cunliffe has Ellington's pianistics aced, but speaks in his own alluring individual manner as well, and LaBarbera harkens back to the "Jungle Band" days. The smaller band sound by a different set of musical personalities, most especially Smulyan's hearty bari in the breaks, is what sets this delightful version apart. "The Peaches Are Better Down the Road" is a Hodges opus from one of his small group Verve releases. This slow blues with an "After Hours" aura is highlighted by Cipriano's authoritative, perfectly formed tenor solo, and Christlieb's assured creativity in an even more extended outing, with the other horns jabbing vamps in high accord. Shelton's clarinet fills during both the open and close are an additional Masters-conceived attraction. "The Happening" is a perky Gonsalves tune on "I Got Rhythm" changes that was recorded by a Billy Strayhorn-led septet in 1950. Smulyan rumbles and Foster glides through a couple of meaty solos, separated by a boppish Cunliffe. LaBarbera deftly mixes it up amid ensemble parts ahead of a resolute reprise.

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Scott Albin