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Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters

Greg Simmons By
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Mark Masters Ensemble: Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters
It could be argued that the core of bandleader Duke Ellington's wonderful textural sound was the way he harmonized his reed section, with great woody chords and lush polyphonic melodies. That reed section, with the great Johnny Hodges leading on alto, stalwarts like Paul Gonsalves on tenor and Harry Carney on baritone, as well as shorter-term itinerants like the incomparable tenor player Ben Webster, was one of the most well-oiled machines in jazz history. It was glorious.

So it's wholly understandable that a group of saxophonists would jump at the chance to make a record of Ellington's music without inviting the brass. The Mark Masters Ensemble's Ellington Saxophone Encounters goes straight to the heart. But not only is it playing Ellingtonia, it is playing tunes that were penned by Ellington's saxophone players themselves. Although Ellington is credited on a couple of tracks, there's not a single Ellington-Billy Strayhorn composition on the date.

This saxophone lineup clearly has the necessary talent to capture the Ellington sound. Baritone player Gary Smulyan is the featured soloist on a most of the tracks. Tenorist Pete Christlieb—a first rate player in his own right—is a great addition. The other multi- reedists are Gary Foster, Don Shelton and Gene Cipriano. It's worth mentioning them together because—in an unfortunate oversight—the liner notes neglect to list the players with their instruments, and since some of these exceptional players are not household names figuring them all out required Google.

Musically they deliver in spades. This band is at it's best when it plays full force reed melodies. "Used To Be Duke" puts it all in the open with its orchestrated equivalent of bugle call. "Rockin' In Rhythm" is one of the Ellington orchestra's most distinctive melodies, with saxophones overlaying saxophones in a jump swing bounce. The solo turns are excellent as well, but these songs are all about tight group playing and tricky melodies. These guys pull them off brilliantly. Also, pianist Bill Cunliffe, nails Ellington's distinctive intro on "Rockin" and contributes fantastic fills and solos throughout.

The Hodges-Ellington composition "Jeeps Blues" reduces that same textural richness to let the harmonies sink in. It's evidence of just how brilliant Ellington really was as an arranger. He just understood sound and how to manipulate it in such a unique and personal way. Masters' arrangements hew close to Ellington's compositions and that's the smart way to go. These songs were essentially perfect when they were written fifty, sixty or seventy years ago. There's no reason to mess with them now.

Of course it's hard to listen to a record of Ellington's music without thinking—at least a little—of brass players such as Cat Anderson, Tricky Sam Nanton and Bubber Miley. The brass certainly made a great contribution to the Ellington orchestra over the years as well. But for this date the reeds have the stage. Ellington Saxophone Encounters carves out a really important piece of Duke Ellington's music—the reeds—and highlights them with a terrific performance. And who knows, maybe for his next gig Masters will throw the brass back in, and that would be something worth hearing as well.


Track Listing: Esquire Swank; The Line Up; LB Blues; We're In Love Again; Ultra Blue; Used To Be Duke; Jeep's Blues; Get Ready; Love's Away; Rockin' In Rhythm; Peaches; The Happening.

Personnel: Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone; Peter Christlieb: tenor saxophone; Don Shelton: saxophone, clarinet; Gary Foster: alto saxophone; Gene Cipriano: saxophone; Bill Cunliffe: piano; Tom Warrington: bass; Joe LaBarbera: drums.

Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Capri Records


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