Mark Masters Ensemble – Ellington Saxophone Encounters
(Capri Records. CD Review by Frank Griffith)
Ellington Saxophone Encounters features twelve pieces associated with Ellington, including two well-known known gems by the Maestro (Jeeps Blues and Rockin in Rhythm) along with tunes by Jimmy Hamilton, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves. All of these provide effective vehicles for extensive blowing excursions for this top-flight West Coast sax ensemble. This group was organised and led by Mark Masters (who also serves the community as President of the American Jazz Institute), who also did the arrangements, which give a nod to Duke without ever attempt to emulate or recreate him, settings which allow this bevy of capable soloists to shine.
These soloists include veteran LA reedsmen Dick Spencer, Pete Christlieb, and Don Shelton as well as the crack rhythm team of pianist Bill Cunliffe (ex-Buddy Rich) former Tonight Show bassman Tom Warrington and drummer, Joe LaBarbera, who has sidemanned with everyone from Chuck Mangione, Bill Evans and Tony Bennett.
It’s a line-up about which you might say: that’s not a bad start at all. But the real star of the show, and the only non-West Coaster on the date is New Yorker Gary Smulyan on baritone sax. Soloing on virtually every track, he tenders heartfelt readings of Harry Carney’s We’re In Love Again as well as a provocative Jimmy Hamilton ditty Ultra Blue, a loping swinger full of chromantic chord sequences that provide so much delight and shade for the soloist to bask in. Gary rises to the challenge with aplomb. Arguably the top modern baritonist in jazz today, Smulyan completely owns a contemporary melodic vocabulary enhanced by a flawless technique but offset by possessing a full and glowing tone that embraces the listener in its warmth and burnished quality.
Other highlights include a lesser known Ben Webster composition, Loves Away, (originally recorded by Ben with Teddy Wilson, Ray Brown and Jo Jones in 1954) given an updated reading by the wistful yet occasionally blustery tenor of Pete Christlieb. Let us also not overlook the essential role of the Dukian clarinet, handled more than deftly by Don Shelton throughout the date. His three refreshing choruses on Hamilton’s Get Ready as well as his obligatto work throughout Peaches go a long way to exemplifying this.
A super disc from start to finish, Elllington Saxophone Encounters evokes the best of Ellington and Smulyan in a unique and successful collaboration.
The CD is available from 21 August on Capri Records.
Gary Smulyan will be touring the UK with the Pete Lukas Quintet beginning 20 November 2012.