The American classical music world has been paying fresh attention to unfairly neglected Black composers like Florence Price and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. In this context, it’s easy to forget about the ambitious compositional accomplishments of an infinitely more famous man: Duke Ellington, whose legend arose from his renown as a bandleader and writer of enduring popular standards. The Marcus Roberts Trio joined Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) on 24 March at Carnegie Hall to give Duke Ellington’s orchestral music its due.
Some of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington’s extended works had actually premiered at Carnegie, beginning with Black, Brown and Beige Suite in 1943. In this experimental work Ellington attempted “a [musical] parallel to the history of the Negro in America.” Originally it ran for nearly an hour; I had never heard it in any form.
The ASO opened the concert with a shortened version, in a 1970 arrangement by Maurice Peress, who had worked with Ellington on it. To my ear, it was neither the evening’s strongest work nor the most convincing performance. But it announced boldly Ellington’s ambition to integrate the bluesy, improvisatory vocabulary of jazz into the “fixed” classical-music tradition, as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein also did in their different ways.
Ellington’s skill at sophisticated and unexpected harmonies was particularly evident in the slow middle section, which included melodic features for muted trombone, saxophone, and cello. A trumpet fanfare kicked off the snappy swing of the closing section. But I couldn’t help thinking that however skilled the conductor, an orchestra can’t quite play “behind the beat” the way rhythm sections and individual musicians do in jazz.
The contrast was clear during the 1955 suite Night Creature for Jazz Band and Orchestra. By the mid-’50s I think Ellington had found a better route toward orchestral expression of the culture of jazz. A climbing-and-falling figure touched off the playful first section (“Blind Bug”). A stark, bluesy piano-and-drums figuration framed the languid but tense “Stalking Monster.” That exposed theme provided an almost exaggerated demonstration of the “behind the beat” playing that’s so unnatural for a full orchestra.
I had heard a recording of the better-known 1951 suite Harlem. I appreciated it more live. Its developments take one on an evocative musical journey. Botstein brought out the timbral clarity and the wonderful counterpoint in the breakdown section and beyond. The stylistic fusion felt so natural that even the mini-drum solo sounded perfectly natural.
Between the long pieces, the coolly assured vocalist Catherine Russell joined the orchestra for flowing arrangements of two of Ellington’s most enduring popular songs. “Satin Doll” reminded us of how much Ellington elevated pop writing. An especially moving “Sophisticated Lady” flowed in an ethereal Chuck Israels arrangement.
After intermission Russell returned with the Marcus Roberts Trio for a mini-set of concise takes on three more Ellington chestnuts. One was a brilliant take on “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” A luscious “Mood Indigo” cruised past with smoky, sultry vocals and a scintillating double-time piano solo.
The brightest fireworks followed, as the Roberts trio joined forces with the orchestra for two more extended Ellington works. The first was the Peress arrangement of the early suite New World A-Comin’ which has has been described as Ellington’s piano concerto. The second was a seamlessly integrated performance of the Luther Henderson arrangement of Three Black Kings. Both featured Roberts-arranged solos.
New World A-Comin’ called to mind Rhapsody in Blue at times. It featured Roberts’ most brilliant soloing, a titanic turn that made me think of what it must have been like to hear Liszt or Chopin play their own works. A sweet clarinet break led into a sequence of booming cluster chords like those Ellington had deployed in Black, Brown and Beige. They felt more expressive here.
Three Black Kings was Duke’s very last work, composed while he was in the hospital in 1974 and completed after his death by his son Mercer, the longtime leader of Ellington’s big band after Duke’s death. The first movement’s insistent rhythms and cool, colorful harmonies set my imagination firing, putting me in mind of an enormous kalimba. It featured brilliant solos from Roberts, bassist Rodney Jordan, and drummer Jason Marsalis.
The second movement begins slowly, exotic and erotic, before breaking into an exciting jump tempo, with brass and sax solos set against motoring sixteenth-note drum accompaniment.
The final movement, in a lush 3/4 swing tempo, ended with another solo from Roberts. That was entirely appropriate. The pianist, who has been blind since childhood, is an eminent Ellington scholar and interpreter as well as a consummate improviser. Wynton Marsalis has called him “the greatest American musician most people have never heard of.” Could anyone have done Duke better? I doubt it.