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Vienna Art Orchestra: Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love

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In the spring of 1999, the Vienna Art Orchestra toured Europe, performing its arrangements of music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Fortunately, it chose to celebrate Duke’s legacy by resurrecting some lesser-known gems and recasting the familiar standards in unfamiliar ways.

The program begins with two pieces you won’t find in any fakebook. “Red Garter,” one of Duke’s 1958 exercises in exotica, opens with a solo clarinet statement that leads into a call-and-response between brass and reeds, capped by a muted trumpet solo from Bumi Fian. As the rhythm section drops out, the piece ends dramatically with the horns playing in ethereal counterpoint. “Very Special” is a blues built around cascading riffs that provide punctuation for a scorching soprano sax solo by Harry Sokal. Other obscure pages from the book of Ellington include the tambourine-driven “Smada,” with its astonishing French horn solo by the Russian virtuoso Arkady Shilkloper, and “Circle in Fourth,” featuring a biting baritone solo by Herwig Gradischnig.

Audiences undoubtedly demanded some of their favorites, yet even these Ellington standards were transformed. The trombone-guitar duet on “Mood Indigo” by the brothers Christian and Wolfgang Muthspiel makes use of multiphonics and displays a playful sense of adventure. “Take the ‘A’ Train” is a jaw-dropping showcase for former Vienna Philharmonic bassist Georg Breinschmid and bass clarinetist Klaus Dickbauer. Vocalist Anna Lauvergnac is heard on three pieces, most effectively on “Blood Count,” where her dark alto is an appropriate vehicle for the song’s melancholy mood.