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Aardvark Jazz Orchestra: Duke Ellington/Sacred Music

For more than 30 years, trumpeter and composer Mark Harvey has led his Aardvark Jazz Orchestra in the Boston area. Their performances and recordings show they’re not afraid to take chances, so it’s intriguing to hear what they’ve done on Duke Ellington/Sacred Music (Aardmuse). In addition to his writing and playing, Harvey teaches jazz at MIT and is a United Methodist minister. He often worked with the late Reverend John Gensel, the widely respected pastor to the jazz community in New York City, and one of the highlights of this concert recording is Ellington’s tonal portrait of Gensel titled “The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock).” It’s basically a blues that begins with Richard Nelson’s unaccompanied electric guitar. Harvey plays a plunger solo full of feeling, and trombonist Bill Lowe and saxophonist Arni Cheatham dig deep down to pay tribute to both Gensel and Ellington. You might wonder about hearing a tap dancer on a CD, but Tommy DeFrantz steps up and proves the point by tapping out “David Danced (Before the Lord With All His Might).” He must have been doing something visually spectacular, as the audience erupts in applause at one point, but we can only guess what they saw. The first movement of “Three Black Kings” gets a little wild as Greg Kelley takes an adventurous trumpet solo. Ayida Mthembu recites Billy Strayhorn’s creed “4 Freedoms” backed by chorus and Jerry Edwards scatting on “It’s Freedom,” and Pamela Wood sings Psalm 150 with a big vibrato until the band kicks in. DeFrantz then trades fours with the sax section, and Phil Scarff’s soaring soprano takes it out with one final blast from the orchestra. It sounds like some of these tracks were recorded with a little too much ambient miking, as almost everything sounds a little distant. This band seldom tours, so this disc is your opportunity to hear it play some great music without having to travel to Massachusetts.

Originally Published