Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Ellington Saxophone Encounters

Step into your time machine, fasten your seat belts, and settle back for a visit to the Duke Ellington era. 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like, if a modern musician were to wander onto the stage and sit in with one of the great bands of the past? Well, that’s what this album is all about. It’s a collection of tunes written by members of Duke’s bands, during the era when he reigned supreme, and played here by eight of today’s top artists: the Mark Masters Ensemble. 

This group’s instrumentation is unique: five reeds and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass and drums. Each individual is famed, having spent a career working with top-level jazz groups. The baritone sax is held by the award-winning Gary Smulyan; the other reed players — each fluent with clarinet, alto, tenor and flute — are Gary Foster, Pete Christlieb, Gene Cipriano and Don Shelton. The supporting rhythm section features pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Leader Mark Masters is responsible for the arrangements.

The Ellington artists who contributed the tunes — all part of Duke’s library over the years — include Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton and Ben Webster. All are Jazz Hall of Fame members. 

Hodges composed “Esquire Swank,” “Lawrence Brown Blues,” Used to Be Duke,” “Jeep’s Blues” and “Peaches.” Gonsalves did “The Line Up” and “The Happening”; Carney contributed “We’re in Love Again” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm”; Hamilton gave us “Ultra Blue” and “Get Ready”; and Webster wrote “Love’s Away.” You may not know some of the titles, but you’ll recognize the melodies. As was the case with many of the tunes in his book, Ellington often  played a role in the end result, as a “co-composer.”

You’ll swear it’s Duke’s wonderful band from the first bar of the lead track, “Esquire Swank.” Close your eyes, and you’ve time- and place-shifted back to one of the great 1940s ballrooms. The same can be said of all these tracks: This is, indeed, an encounter of a most magical kind.

It’s an ensemble and album to die for.

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