Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was a jazz legend. So it’s only natural that Brandeis Jazz Ensemble’s latest concert “Music of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Edvard Grieg,” was all about Ellington.
Duke Ellington was born in 1899, led his orchestra starting in 1923, and kept playing and composing until he died in 1974, spanning a record-long 51-year career. Ellington, in fact, originated over a thousand compositions and is therefore responsible for the largest recorded personal jazz history. Many of Ellington’s pieces have become jazz standards and are featured in any jazz “Real Book” (a collection of jazz standards) that you’ll see.
It was therefore surprising when Bob Neiske, the director of the Brandeis Jazz Ensemble, started off the evening concert by announcing that much of Ellington’s work is wrongly credited to Ellington. Neiske announced that he too was surprised when he discovered that two of Ellington’s most famous tunes, “Take the A Train” and “Chelsea Bridge,” were both actually composed by Billy Strayhorn, another jazz legend and composer who worked alongside Ellington for nearly three decades.
The concert began with the classics. “Take the A Train,” “Cottontail,” “Caravan” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” were each graced by the 16-piece Brandeis Jazz Ensemble. With five saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones, a piano, a bass, drums and a cello, the orchestra was not lacking the ability to project.
However, even with the large group size, the featured soloists for each tune still managed to distinguish themselves. For each solo, the given soloist would stand up (when possible, because standing and playing the drums or piano isn’t so easy, as it turns out) and weave a story through melody and rhythm—sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, often passionate, but always skillful.
During most jazz concerts, the ensemble will play through all of the sections of a given tune, then let a few of the musicians solo over an instrumental section. These solos are often improvised, and so the audience will traditionally applaud solos that they like. However, this tradition is not known to all jazz concert-goers, so many will stutter scattered applauses in awkward places or forget to clap at all after less distinguishable reserved solos. This particular audience did an all right job with the applause. It was awkward, but it conveyed good intention.
After the ensemble finished running through the classics, it moved on to Ellington and Strayhorn’s groundbreaking interpretation of Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite,” featuring “In the Hall of the Mountain King”—I promise you’ll recognize this one if you take the time to Google it, a different arrangement of it was even featured in “The Social Network.”
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg originally wrote the “Peer Gynt Suite” for Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt,” which premiered in 1876. Ellington and Strayhorn took the suite and rearranged it in a way that had never been done before. Maybe it was the rhythmic incantation of the bass drum, or maybe the roar of the baritone saxophone, but the music lulled audience into a hypnotic trance, only broken by the occasional jubilant outburst from the brass section.
The concert highlighted what many love about jazz: A story was told, and some, if not most, people heard it differently.