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David Matthews and the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra: Hey Duke!

At the time of this 1999 recording, originally made for VideoArts (apparently a Japanese label), pianist and arranger Matthews’ Manhattan Jazz Orchestra was observing its 10th anniversary. The year also coincided with the Duke Ellington centennial, so Matthews decided to add his tribute to the celebration. The album, however, owes more to Gil Evans’ arranging style than to Ellington’s (although Ellington and Evans are closely related).

Matthews writes with a flair for drama, brassy colors and original harmony. Seven of the album’s eight tunes are Ellington compositions, with “Song for Edward” being the lone Matthews original. The band includes four trumpets, four trombones, two French horns, tuba, three reeds, piano, bass and drums. Christine Sperry, an opera singer, appears on “Come Sunday.”

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” opens the album on a bold note, with a heavy brass fanfare launching the melody. Chris Hunter (alto), Aaron Heick (soprano) and Ryan Kisor (trumpet) offer hard-charging solos, and the ensemble serves up hair-raising interludes and backgrounds. Drummer Terry Silverlight keeps the “swing” in the title.

Matthews, who arranged for James Brown in the early ’70s, seems fond of Evans’ Miles Ahead period. This is particularly evident on “Prelude to a Kiss” and “In a Sentimental Mood.” There are fat tuba-and-bass clarinet counterlines, sudden transitions from full blast voicings to airy unison lines and the deployment of high trumpet runs and internal polyrhythms. Trumpet soloist Lew Soloff is a killer on “Prelude.” “Mood Indigo,” with a funky eighth-note beat, is radically different from Ellington’s arrangement.

Matthews is a major arranger who’s largely overlooked in jazz polls. This album ranks as one of the best, most creative birthday salutes to Ellington, even if it is three years late arriving in the U.S.

Originally Published