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The Mark Masters Ensemble: Masters & Baron Meet Blanton & Webster (Capri)

A review of the arranger's album featuring music from one of Duke Ellington’s greatest periods

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Mark Masters: Masters & Baron Meet Blanton & Webster
The cover of Masters & Baron Meet Blanton & Webster by Mark Masters

Nowadays global jazz culture is obsessed with original composition. Mark Masters bucks this trend. He’s a skilled arranger but also a curator, always searching out repertoire that stimulates his creativity. He has made albums devoted to Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Dewey Redman, and Alex Wilder. He has even covered Steely Dan. But “covered” is the wrong word. Masters recomposes his chosen material in ways that open fresh insights into both the mind of the original composer and the mind of Mark Masters.

His latest project contains pieces from one of Duke Ellington’s greatest periods, 1940-1942, when bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster distinguished the orchestra. The “Baron” in the title is Art Baron, who occupied the Ellington band’s plunger trombone chair in August 1973, when he was 23. He was the last trombonist that the Duke hired; Ellington died less than 10 months later. Baron is a featured soloist here.

“Take the ‘A’ Train” is vividly representative of Masters’ methods. It has a brand-new introduction, and even when the iconic theme emerges it exhibits unfamiliar rhythmic contours and harmonic colors. Tim Hagans’ trumpet solo takes a bold contemporary slant through the song. “Ko-Ko” is a clean start-over but still contains “Ko-Ko.” The adept 13-piece ensemble (mostly Southern Californians) glides in and out of “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” on a little waltz that Masters invented just for this occasion.

It is fun to discover, track after track, Masters’ unexpected angles on Ellington. One issue is that Baron dominates the solo space. A little plunger trombone goes a long way; it can turn a great song like “I Got It Bad” into a novelty number. This album would have been even more fun if fine players like Hagans, baritone saxophonist Adam Schroeder, and tenor saxophonist Kirsten Edkins had been given more time.

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Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.