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Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters

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Mark Masters Ensemble: Mark Masters Ensemble: Ellington Saxophone Encounters How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

It could be argued that the core of bandleader Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
'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
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
1907 - 1970
sax, alto
leading on alto, stalwarts like Paul Gonsalves
Paul Gonsalves
Paul Gonsalves
1920 - 1974
sax, tenor
on tenor and Harry Carney
Harry Carney
Harry Carney
1910 - 1974
sax, baritone
on baritone, as well as shorter-term itinerants like the incomparable tenor player Ben Webster
Ben Webster
Ben Webster
1909 - 1973
sax, tenor
, 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
Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
1915 - 1967
piano
composition on the date.

This saxophone lineup clearly has the necessary talent to capture the Ellington sound. Baritone player Gary Smulyan
Gary Smulyan
Gary Smulyan
b.1956
sax, baritone
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
Gary Foster
Gary Foster
b.1936
reeds
, Don Shelton and Gene Cipriano
Gene Cipriano
Gene Cipriano

saxophone
. 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
Bill Cunliffe
Bill Cunliffe
b.1956
piano
, 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
Cat Anderson
Cat Anderson
1916 - 1981
trumpet
, Tricky Sam Nanton
Tricky Sam Nanton
Tricky Sam Nanton
1904 - 1946
trombone
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.

Record Label: Capri Records


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