FEATURE: The Classical Duke Ellington: Pete Long and Echoes of Ellington (Cadogan Hall Saturday 8 September)

Pete Long (clarinet):
Neptune, the mystic
Photo credit: Philip Nash
Duke Ellington’s elegant and witty reworkings of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcrackerand Grieg’s Peer Gynt suites are featured along with an Ellingtonian Jazz Planets – a new version of Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite in its centenary year. Each of the ten movements of Jazz Planets features a soloist from the Echoes of Ellington Orchestra. Feature by Peter Vacher.

Back in the day, “raggin’ or jazzin’ the classics” was all the rage. It was the American bandleader John Kirby who really put the idea on the map when his tightly organised sextet recorded swinging versions of Schubert’s Serenade and Dvorak’s Humoresque in the 1930s. Later on, they added Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt and the intriguingly titled Bounce Of The Sugar Plum Fairy, thus anticipating Duke Ellington’s more comprehensive examination of these time-honoured classics. On a somewhat larger scale, the blind British pianist Alec Templeton created Bach Goes To Town for Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1938. Sub-titled Prelude And Fugue In Swing it was featured at the band’s Second Carnegie Hall Concert the following year. Speaking of Templeton’s composition, Goodman said it was “as if Bach were writing for a swing band.”
Joe Pettitt (double bass) Saturn, the bringer of old age
Photo Credit: Philip Nash
More recently, Wilbur De Paris’ Rampart Street Paraders speeded through Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, a piece which it turns out had been recast by Ellington years earlier when his Orchestra was resident at New York’s Cotton Club. Consider, too, the French pianist Jacques Loussier, classically trained and hugely accomplished, who made his fortune with his Play Bach trio, touring world-wide as he set his performances of Bach’s many composition against a jazz backdrop.

That said, for jazz people, it really took the imprimatur of the mighty Duke Ellington himself to give this short-lived fashion the ultimate badge of approval. When he and his amanuensis Billy Strayhorn conceived the idea of applying the Ellingtonian lexicon to their paraphrase of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Nutcracker Suite there was surprise, naturally, but ultimately, approval. The authoritative Gramophone Magazine’s reviewer described Ellington’s re-workings as “a wonderfully affectionate and superbly stimulating reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s suite” while other critics revelled in the roles fulfilled by the band’s greatest soloists in each of Duke’s separate arrangements. Much the same was said of his equally distinctive look at the Peer Gynt Suites Nos 1 and 2 by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg even if the Royal Swedish Academy of Music spoke sniffily of Ellington’s apparent heresy as “offending to Nordic music culture”. No matter, for the music was superb as can be judged when patiently transcribed extracts from both the Ellington Nutcracker and Peer Gynt suites are performed by Pete Long’s splendid Echoes of Ellington Orchestra at the upcoming Cadogan Hall concert on 8 September.
Callum Au (trombone) and Mike Hall (tenor sax)
The Asteroids, the dancers
Photo Credit: Philip Nash

While Ellington’s precise motivation for embarking on these re-creations remains obscure, that for Ellington enthusiast Long’s entirely fresh but still essentially Ellingtonian examination of Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite is crystal clear. “While driving, Venus from The Planets Suite came on the radio,” he recalled. “It suddenly struck me how Ellingtonian the curves of the melody were. By the time I’d reached my destination, the broad idea of restructuring the whole suite for an Ellington-style orchestra had coalesced.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Only then could the herculean task of re-orchestrating the many planetary parts commence. After all, Holst’s suite had been written for a large orchestra so eight months of heady work ensued, key melodies were extracted and a signature character assigned to each of Holst’s movements. Ideas were tested and expanded, and individual soloists highlighted as they might have been had Ellington himself been in charge. That done, all that remained was for The Planets Suite by Holst but re-arranged by Pete Long for big band to be recorded. Which it has been.
Colin Good (piano)
Uranus: the magician
Photo Credit: Philip Nash
The African-American commentator Stanley Crouch was once moved to describe Ellington’s original Nutcracker and Peer Gynt recordings as “making it obvious that one of the greatest ensembles in all of Western history is at work”. Having heard Long’s re-scored Planetary music already, I fully expect Crouch‘s verdict to be replicated by those who witness Pete Long and the Echoes of Ellington performing The Classical Duke Ellington at Cadogan Hall in what will be a triple celebration. Not only does 2018 mark the centenary of the premiere performance of Holst’s The Planets Suite but it is also a quarter of a century since Long formed the Echoes Orchestra and ten years since the Jazz Repertory Company’s rich array of concerts at Cadogan Hall first began. (pp)

LINK: The Classical Duke Ellington at Cadogan Hall

Categories: Features/Interviews

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