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Jazz concert honors prolific composer Duke Ellington
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Jazz royalty gets a salute from Purdue’s American Music Repertory Ensemble at “Ellingtonia!” a Feb. 22 concert featuring signature works by the 20th century’s most prolific composer Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
The free concert is set for 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, in Loeb Playhouse of the Purdue Stewart Center.
Looking at the legacy of a bandleader who fronted his own band for 50 years, who wrote more than 2,000 songs, played more than 20,000 concerts all over the globe, and helped to break down racial barriers in music, it’s challenging to settle on a handful of tunes for a tribute concert.
Director M.T. “Mo” Trout focuses “Ellingtonia!” on “that period from 1935 to 1945 that includes what’s considered to be Duke Ellington’s greatest band. It was his most productive period where he made the biggest strides in creating an original sound and art form.”
Tunes from that period, that will be performed at the concert, include Sophisticated Lady,” “Cotton Tail,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Rockin’ In Rhythm” among others.
Besides being a prolific composer, Ellington’s genius was rooted in his ability to synthesize many elements of American music – the minstrel song, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley tunes, the blues and American appropriations of the European musical tradition – into a consistent style with broad popular appeal.
Most of Ellington’s tunes were highly personal, based on a memory, mood or image. “The memory of things gone,” Ellington once said, “is important to a jazz musician. Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night or something someone said long ago.”
A vivid example of Ellington’s “memories” will be showcased in “Harlem Airshaft” which definitely “evokes a place,” says Trout, even though it’s a slightly odd place. The tune “musically describes what you hear standing next to an air-conditioning shaft in an old Harlem building. Through the shaft, you could hear conversations going on throughout the building, people dancing, snoring, living - Ellington tried to put that into music.”
“Prelude to a Kiss,” is an Ellington “mood” piece capturing the anticipation and excitement leading up to a kiss. “The whole piece is a build-up to the kiss. There’s a certain moment in the music when it happens and that’s unmistakable,” Trout says.
When Ellington composed music, he wrote the various instrumental parts with the specific talents of the musician playing them in mind. “His lead alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges could smear and blend notes in a sexy way,” Trout says, and Purdue’s Richie Humes will try to emulate Hodges’ style in “Prelude to a Kiss.”
It’s the goal of the American Music Repertory Ensemble to present music the way audiences heard it when it first became popular. Because Ellington wrote tunes to showcase the unique capabilities and talents of his musicians, it’s challenging to reproduce that sound, Trout says.
“That’s something you have to come to grips with. It’s very difficult to make the tunes sound just like Ellington. There are adjustments all bands (playing his music) have to make because most don’t have musicians with the same skills.”
One Ellington trademark that audiences will readily notice at “Ellingtonia!” is the use of guttural growls and plunger mutes with the brass instruments. “That harkens back to the old Cotton Club style,” Trout says, dating to the late 1920s and early 1930s. Ellington’s famous “jungle music” style, a kind of musical exotica, heavily relied on these mute techniques and originated during this period.
“Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Old King Dooji,” to be performed by the American Music Repertory Ensemble on the concert, will showcase the unusual instrumental voicings and unique brass mute techniques that characterized Ellington’s “jungle music.”
Another piece with historic significance is “Jack the Bear,” the very first jazz piece to feature a solo for upright bass. In Ellington’s band, it was written for and performed by the young bass virtuoso, Jimmie Blanton. For the American Music Repertory Ensemble, Woomin Shin will perform the solo.
Three vocal numbers will be featured on the concert. Two – “Rocks in My Bed” and “Jump for Joy” - came from a musical revue Ellington wrote titled “Jump for Joy.” The third is “Cotton Tail.” When Ellington wrote “Cotton Tail” it didn’t have lyrics but singer Jon Hendricks, using a jazz style called “vocalese” added words on top of the music.
American Music Repertory Ensemble is one of four jazz bands in Purdue Bands & Orchestra department. It will next appear in concert at the Super Jazz Jam on March 28.
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