You know that an orchestra organized by William Parker to pay tribute to Duke Ellington is going to result in something sprawling and stupendous, and Essence of Ellington doesn’t disappoint. At 60, Parker is taking evident satisfaction in being a free-jazz renegade and a traditionalist at the same time. The release of this two-hour live concert from Milano in February 2012 follows his two-hour collection of concerts dedicated to the music of Curtis Mayfield and his magnificent, exhausting three hours of solo bass works.
The impregnable catalog of Ellington, with its indelible melodies, its suave and irresistible sense of swing and its simultaneous embrace of plush orchestrations and sharp individual expression, is an ideal playground for Parker and his recent, ambitious gush of creative energy. Plucking a dozen kindred spirits-including four from way back in the days of the Little Huey Creative Orchestra, four from the Mayfield project and noteworthy talents such as the iconic New Orleans tenor and teacher Kidd Jordan and the auspicious alto saxophonist Darius Jones-the bassist and band sashay through “Sophisticated Lady,” tromp the throttle on “Take the ‘A’ Train” and milk Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” with a billowing, bellowing frenzy. Plopped in the middle is a relatively short and gorgeous rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood,” performed by pianist Dave Burrell, Jones and vocalist Ernie Odoom.
Parker contributes originals inspired by Ellington, including the title track and “Essence of Sophisticated Lady.” He also penned the opening “Portrait of Louisiana,” dedicated to the late Crescent City educator and trumpeter Clyde Kerr and initially powered by Jordan’s torrid tenor over the redoubtable rhythm section of Parker and drummer Hamid Drake.
Of the non-Ellington offerings, my favorite is “Take the Coltrane,” described by Parker as just “a blues in F” in which, as with Little Huey 20 years ago, the ensemble is “self-conducted,” able to enter or lay out at their individual discretion. Inevitably there is a boiling point where Odoom starts scatting like a Pentecostal speaking in tongues, and some may not associate such chaos and cacophony with Ellington. But Parker’s lengthy definition of the essence of Ellington in the liner notes begins with it being “the jump, the freedom, all layered in the blues.” That’s the essence of Parker, too.