Allow me to qualify myself.
Back in March I wrote a post about The Duke Ellington Orchestra when they were beginning a stand at Blues Alley. I pointed out that while it was a continuation of Ellington’s original organization, “nobody currently in the Duke Ellington Orchestra was there when it was Duke Ellington’s orchestra….Just something to take into account if you’re considering shelling out $37.75 per person, before Blues Alley’s hefty add-on fees, to see a “national treasure” you may not much recognize.”
Current orchestra trumpeter Kevin Bryan called me on this, pointing out that leader Barrie Lee Hall had been in Ellington’s band during the last several months of the iconic bandleader’s life, and tacitly challenged me to see the band. Fair complaints all around. And last night I got to see the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s current incarnation when they headlined the NEA Jazz Masters concert at the Lincoln Theatre.
I stand by the caveat that there’s a star power behind the name “The Duke Ellington Orchestra” – and there aren’t any Ellingtons in the orchestra at the moment. That said, what you do get when you buy a ticket to see them is a world-class big band ensemble and quite a few crackerjack soloists playing Ellington’s set pieces, using Ellington’s arrangement book and solid takes on his famous band members. They did a brilliant version of “The Mooche,” Hall bringing Bubber Miley‘s growling plunger-mute trumpet back to life, asked vocalist Sharon Clark to sing “It Don’t Mean A Thing” and “Take the A-Train,” and brought clarinetist Paquito d’Rivera and DC sax legends Buck Hill and George Botts onstage for a wildly swinging version of “The C-Jam Blues.” The undisputed peak of the concert, however, found the band replicating the hauntingly quiet three-horn arrangement of “Mood Indigo,” the maestro’s breakthrough 1930 hit. (Actually, it was far more cunning than that. In front was the trombone/trumpet/clarinet arrangement from the original hit; behind them was the full-band arrangement Duke used in the ’50s; and pianist Tony James‘ intro was the melody from Thelonious Monk‘s “Monk’s Mood.” Damned clever.)
Thus, while I still advise that you know who you’re seeing when you see the Duke Ellington Orchestra, I concede that it’s an uplifting, gratifying experience to hear the Duke’s music as the Duke played it. Go! See them! Have a great time!