Alive with Ellington

When the CD Digital Duke (GRP) was released in 1987, it affirmed that the Duke Ellington legacy would ring true even into the digital age.

Duke’s son, Mercer, who had conducted the Duke Ellington Orchestra since his father’s death in 1974, assumed that role for this album (the Digital Duke band included members of the Orchestra and others); he also co-produced the work, with contemporary keyboardist Michael Abene. Ellington alumni Clark Terry, Louie Bellson, Barrie Lee Hall, Rocky White, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman and Al Grey came aboard to keep the authentic Ellington sound intact, and saxman Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Lew Soloff, and clarinet marvel Eddie Daniels joyously assured that this next generation of great players was indeed running with the torch.

Marsalis breathes fire on the speedy “Cottontail,” showing respect to the original Ben Webster solo while plotting his own course. “As a young punk, I was awed even to be called for this album,” he explains. “In fact, I felt intimidated. I knew all the great Ellington records, and the contributions of men like Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney. I even learned a lot of Paul Gonsalves solos years ago. I was very lucky to be on this date, and all I could hope for was to do a credible job by adapting myself to the setting.”

Lew Soloff is a strong, dynamic player, and Daniels riffs through “Perdido” with alarming grace and control. They play the classics — “Satin Doll,” “Prelude To A Kiss,” “Mood Indigo” and “Take The ‘A’ Train” (the Billy Strayhorn composition) right in the pocket; there’s no hurry to get to the end of the line. “22 Cent Stomp” lets the trumpets do some screaming, and Barrie Lee Hall blows with a sense of history and a modern edge.

When Digital Duke was released, Paul Mercer Ellington was only 9 years old. The grandson of Duke Ellington, Paul grew up watching his father, Mercer, compose for and conduct the Orchestra. When Paul was 8, Mercer took him along on a tour to Japan, at one point turning to him to say, “Son, this is all yours; make sure you keep it going.” Accordingly, Paul pursued a musical education, learning the art of being a band leader and conductor as well as studying drums, percussion, trumpet, piano and composition.

Initially devastated by his father’s untimely death in 1996, Paul Mercer Ellington was nonetheless determined to keep the Orchestra alive, and has since guided the band through performances at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the Newport Jazz Festival, the Blue Note Nightclub, and on tours through Europe and Japan.

Along the way, he’s assembled an impressive crop of aspiring young jazz musicians, along with several veterans who really “know the book” — such as trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall, a key arranger and transcriber of the early Ellington works on Digital Duke. Hall appeared on Duke Ellington’s final recording, Eastbourne Performance (RCA, 1973), and on several of the Mercer Ellington-era releases — including Continuum (Fantasy, 1975), recorded shortly after Duke’s death. Drummer Rocky White played with Duke in his last bands, and baritone saxist Charles Young and trombonist Shelly Paul each have close to 25 years’ experience with the evolving group.

“These musicians played with Mercer, and several of them actually played with Duke,” confirms Ray Reneri, Paul Ellington’s assistant. “Paul conducts, and sometimes he slides over to play a little piano. It’s great music, and they play just about every one of the band’s classics.”

On July 18, Blue Note Records will release Louis Armstrong/Duke Ellington: The Master Takes/The Making of the Great Summit, documenting a rare 1961 New York meeting of the jazz giants that featured Ellington’s “Lucky So And So,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and others. The two-CD set includes the original sides released on Roulette Records (Together for the First Time and The Great Reunion), along with a CD of previously unreleased material — including studio conversations and incomplete takes. The rising young Ellington hopes to have the current Orchestra in the studio recording a new CD this year, and Reneri reports that they’re working out the details on a deal with a Japanese jazz label.

“My grandfather and father … understood that the only way to truly be a part of jazz music was to give of themselves completely and freely,” Ellington explains. “And so it goes; the music and the Ellington legend will last forever.”

The Duke Ellington Orchestra, under the direction of Paul Mercer Ellington, performs on Saturday, July 1, at Appalachian State University’s Farthing Auditorium as part of the Appalachian Summer Festival. Tickets go for $18/adults, $10/students, and $2/children 12 and under. For tickets and/or more info, call (800) 841-ARTS.

The Appalachian Summer Festival runs July 1-29 on or near the campus of ASU. Other musical highlights include the North Carolina Symphony (July 2 and 11), guitarist Douglas James (July 10), violinist Pinchas Zuckerman (July 15), Arlo Guthrie (July 23), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 24), jazz pianist Benny Green (July 26), and Kenny Rogers rocking Kidd-Brewer Stadium with a festival-closing fireworks show on July 29.

Other noteworthy events: Parsons Dance Company performs at Farthing on July 8, Paul Taylor Dance Company comes in on July 18, and the Juilliard Dance Ensemble appears with the Broyhill Chamber Ensemble on July 27. Art exhibits (world renowned painter Wolf Kahn will be on hand), lectures, theater for all ages, and interactive operettas will also featured. For tickets and/or info about these and other Appalachian Summer Festival events, call (800) 841-ARTS.

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