The intergenerational Amsterdam collective
All Ellington, started by Eric Boeren, has been playing music by Duke,
Strayhorn and company since 2013. Its ranks also include A’dam improvising
linchpins Joost Buis, Wilbert de Joode and Oscar Jan Hoogland, so you might
reasonably infer they play the compositions with respect and also slide out of
the frame into freer space, sometimes improvising transitions between pieces.
Misha Mengelberg’s/ICP’s engagement with the Ellington repertoire 30 years
ago set that template. But after five years of breaking down the original charts
by ear, and honing them in intensive rehearsals (Boeren: “We have several
band members with a terrific ear for harmony”) and despite some personnel
changes, All Ellington also do something trickier. As their eponymous CD
demonstrates, they frequently animate the elusive Ellington effect itself, the
sound of Duke’s actual scoring, working with only three reeds and three brass.
Not just the totemic pixie-mutes-under-plungers wah-wah stuff, but the
sublime Strayhorn reed voicings. Putting all of that together, they make this
music their own.
Cornetist Boeren, and the other principal arranger, trombonist Buis, first
played obscure Ellington in the early 1990s, before they ran their respective
Ornette and Sun Ra repertory projects, bands that slid into and out of the
sounds of their role models the way All Ellington does, and which had Wilbert
de Joode on bass. The under-performed Ellington here come from various
suites, Perfume to Far East, and from Barney Bigard and Cootie Williams small
groups. There are also some evergreens.
To achieve that Ellington effect, it helps that altoist Mo van der Does (20 when
the band recorded) and baritone saxist Giuseppe Doronzo can slide into
Johnny Hodges inflections and Harry Carney vibrato at will, but use those
powers sparingly. Tenor Natalio Sued, given the Paul Gonsalves slot on “Mount
Harissa” only meets Paul halfway, retaining his own Argentine romantic (and
Warne Marsh–loving) side. (The saxophonists double on clarinets/bass
clarinet.) In a similar way, Buis may reference Juan Tizol or the Joe Nanton yaya
lineage (notably on “Sonnet for “Sister Kate,” Boeren’s chart with organ
chords from background horns).
The effect also relies on idiosyncratic blending of the horns – AE’s pocket-sized
sections are tight – and that deft arranging: ex-bandmember Michael Moore’s
setting of “Mount Harissa” with its five-voice backgrounds for Sued’s steaming
catch the flavor of the original, or Buis’s “Zweet Zurzday,” refining the 2003
version by his Astronotes.
The brass trio reunites Boeren and trumpeter Jimmy Sernesky, for the first
time since Available Jelly’s gem Monuments (Ramboy) 25 years earlier.
Sernesky is a terrific, too little known sweet/tart lyrical player who gets good
exposure here, notably on the opener “Night Song,” a jaunty Tizol–Jimmy
Mundy ballad Cootie recorded in 1937. AE’s version starts with a stark
repeating saxophone bell/block chord like an oncoming night train – and which
carries on, persistently, till the reeds slide into silky Duke mode midway
through. Boeren opens up “Black and Tan Fantasy” to give Sernesky more
room to strut, and does a little plunger Bubbering of his own. Eric also steps up
on the collectives, where, per Dutch practice, dynamics and density are
conscientiously varied, and relations are in flux.
On three pieces singer Jodi Gilbert joins the nonet. She is typically heard in
abstract and sometimes broadly expressive settings – try Spoon 3’s Seductive
Sabotage (Evil Rabbit) – and mixes it up with the horns, in particular on
Boeren’s broadly growly “Strange Feeling.” (But then here come those
saxophones again.) She sings “Sophisticated Lady” and “Solitude” disarmingly
straight, with sweetness (early on at least), the way Duke preferred ballads
sung. She lays out the word “sol-i-tude” with even note values on the first two
syllables, just as Ellington wrote it, where other singers tend to shorten that
short i, swinging the word like a triplet. That small choice speaks to how
closely they all mind the original texts, before heading for the hills.
Wilbert de Joode’s plump bass attack is as valuable here as everywhere else,
and period appropriate. He’s their Blanton, and it’s good to hear him romp
through changes. He gets the melody statement on “Sonnet in Search of a
Moor,” under clarinet pastels, and nudges the bow along on the intro to
“Sophisticated Lady,” arranged by Doronzo who channels Carney aping Hodges.
Ex-Los Angeles, ex-Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly applies his Billy Higgins
training. Sometimes understatement is more effective, not least where so
much is happening already. Rosaly doesn’t play like this is a big band. He
keeps things swinging with a light touch.
It’s a tall order, being the pianist in an Ellington tribute band. Oscar Jan
Hoogland handles it very deftly, evoking Duke’s decorations on “Sophisticated
Lady” and getting at the jabbing drive on “Mount Harissa” without neglecting
his own investigations of piano timbre: his strummed autoharping under the
hood on “Zweet Zurzday,” say. Hoogland just hints at a reggae lope on “Sonnet
in Search of a Moor” – more than a whisper would be too much. (Precedent:
the Mercer Ellington ghost band’s ghastly “Queenie Pie Reggae.”) On “Harissa,”
or “Black and Tan,” Hoogland blows up the Ellington percussive gestures
beyond life size. The pianist does much to set the tone, in an unobvious way,
exemplifying the band’s approach: Duke’s music is too pretty not to play
straight, but we also do this other weird stuff (that we can also trace back to
him). They know that if you’re going to play the genius music, you can’t dumb
it down. –Kevin Whitehead, Point of Departure
Jodi Gilbert voice, Mo van der Does alto sax, clarinet, Natalio Sued tenor sax/clarinet, Giuseppe Doronzo baritone sax/bass clarinet, Eric Boeren cornet, Jimmy Sernesky trumpet, Joost Buis trombone, Oscar Jan Hoogland piano, Wilbert de Joode bass, Frank Rosaly drums
1. Night Song
2. Strange Feeling
3. Sonnet for Sister Kate
4. (In My) Solitude
5. Zweet Zhursday
6. Black and Tan Fantasy
7. Sophisticated Lady
8. Lament for Javanette
9. Sonnet in Search of a Moor
10. Mount Harissa