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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Ellington is Everywhere This Year

Tributes abound, from the hastily put together jam sessions that fly in the face of everything Ellington represented as America's premier musical organizer, to mammoth conglomerations, that no matter how well intended, squash the swinging spirit essential to Ellingtonia.

One of the most outstanding celebrations occurred early in April in New York City. The Lincoln Center Jazz Band and the New York Philharmonic teamed up, and played both the original Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg and Ellington/ Strayhorn's reworkings of the same themes. It was a scenario fraught with problems. Though I am associated with the jazz department at Lincoln Center, this was a program I had nothing to do with, and frankly one that at first hearing I was skeptical of. On a purely acoustic level, how would they match each other? Would there have to amplification? Where would the respective ensembles sit? Was there room? Then, on an aesthetic level, should each orchestra play the entire suite, or alternate themes? Would the juxtapositions be too jarring or simply incompatible?

The initial performance was broadcast nationally on Public Television, and although both conductors (Wynton Marsalis and Kurt Masur) admitted during an intermission interview that they could have used a few months on the road to smooth the rough edges, it remained an unqualified success. With the exception of the last selection or two, the Grieg preceded the Ellington. The jazz orchestra sat right in the middle of the symphony orchestra, and to see the varied reactions to what was going on around them was worth the price of musicians. Of course, these are all ace musicians, and the mutual respect was palpable. Many of Masur's players seemed entranced by drummer Herlin Riley's infectious swing and obvious joy in the sheer making of music. But the overriding emotion sprang from the realization of the genius of these two composers who captured their time and place with such clarity that one was transported immediately. Granted music that is programmatic can mean anything to anyone who hears it, whether they know what the story is or not. But the brief but engaging dialogues between the two conductor's set the Peer Gynt myth in terms that remain perpetually contemporary – the relationships between men and women. The selections worked in both a storytelling fashion and also as absolute music.

One of Ellington's trademarks dating back as early as the late 1920s was his adapt pieces by other composers in his own style, while still respecting the original's integrity. This was achieved by a series of subtle compositional devices whose roots were as much timbral and they were notes. Grieg was no slouch as an orchestrator, and it was fascinating to compare at such close range how both he and Ellington achieved their more eccentric aural effects. After all, all one had to do was look for the instrumental combinations.

What one came way with was a startling contrast between the sounds of two adjacent centuries. The refined orchestra, with its strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion and the less restrained yet no less malleable combination of reeds, brass and percussion that is truly the 20th century symphony configuration. Even the rate at which Grieg and Ellington paced their expositions revealed the way composers counted on their listeners receiving their messages. This became yet another element of contrast in the concert – as did the freedom given the jazz musicians, in both purely improvised moments and in the phrasing of their written parts. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley played melodies in a particularly moving way that should have pleased both Grieg and Ellington.