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Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters

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Mark Masters is an accomplished arranger who comes up with hip, unusual ideas for jazz concerts and recordings, such as repertoire by Steely Dan and Dewey Redman. His new album contains compositions by Ellington’s saxophonists: Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Ben Webster and Harry Carney. All the tunes sound like they could have been written by Ellington, which is of course a compliment. Three list Duke as co-composer.

Besides the tunes, what’s to like about this album are the arrangements, their execution by a suave West Coast octet, and Gary Smulyan (which, come to think of it, is almost everything). Smulyan is the only East Coast player here, and the featured soloist.

Masters does not need to “modernize” these songs from the Ellington milieu, because their natural elegance is already timeless. The charts are clean and crisp and band just glides. Fittingly, the frontline is all saxophones: Smulyan, Pete Christlieb, Gary Foster, Don Shelton and Gene Cipriano. On driving pieces like “Rockin’ in Rhythm” (Carney/Ellington) and “The Happening” (Gonsalves), Smulyan’s baritone is a commanding, full-blast force. Yet in his hands the baritone can also be sinuously erotic (“Jeep’s Blues,” Hodges) or romantically lush, with a passionate overflowing final cadenza (“We’re in Love Again,” Carney).

Christlieb and Foster are also money. On “Love’s Away,” Christlieb’s breathy, brave tenor vibrato is an offering to the song’s composer, Webster. Foster’s alto flies up out of two Hamilton tunes, “Ultra Blue” and “Get Ready,” like the very voice of joy.

Originally Published