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'A' Train, E Ticket

Jazz* The World Saxophone Quartet, which gave the swing classic a wild interpretive ride, takes its sense of musical adventure from Duke Ellington.

April 23, 1999|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The adventurous World Saxophone Quartet and forward-thinking drummer Jack DeJohnette aren't usually thought of as Duke Ellington torchbearers. And even though they are joining forces tonight and Saturday in an Ellington celebration at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's jazz series in Founders Hall, they won't be out to reproduce the Ellington sound.

Their connection to Ellington, DeJohnette and quartet founding member Hamiet Bluiett said in separate interviews, will come out in the music's spirit and ambition.

The World Saxophone Quartet "doesn't want to be locked down," Bluiett said. "That's one of the things we take from Duke. He wanted to work from many concepts, with choirs and dancers and orchestras, with the band as a nucleus. It makes no sense if all you do is one thing."

That mind set is apparent in the group's album "Plays Ellington," which features a version of "Take the 'A' Train" like no other. Recorded in 1986, well before this year's Ellington centennial celebration--Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of his birth--this four-horn-only " 'A' Train" uses bullet-train tempos, modern cacophony and off-track solos. It's quite different from the sophisticated, swing rendition Ellington first recorded in 1941.

"We've taken his attitude in terms of the music," Bluiett said. "We may not be the best-dressed guys on the bandstand like he was, but we're taking his futuristic look at the music. Like him, we'll never get stuck in a rut."

Likewise, Ellington might not leap to mind when you hear DeJohnette's suave composition "Zoot Suite," from his groundbreaking 1979 "Special Edition" album that included onetime quartet members David Murray and Arthur Blythe. But, the drummer said, the song was indeed inspired by Ellington's sophistication and stands as his undeclared tribute to the Duke.

"Ellington didn't see any limitations," said DeJohnette, who grew up listening to Ellington's recordings. "His experience proves the point that if you have a dream and are determined to achieve it, you can. It will become your life, no matter what the obstacles are.

"An interviewer once asked Ellington, 'Why do you only write music for your people?' 'No, no,' said Ellington. 'I write music for the people. All the people.' He refused to see any racial category."

DeJohnette joined the quartet--then consisting of Bluiett, Murray (since replaced by John Stubblefield), alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and saxello, alto sax and flute player John Purcell--in a 1998 tribute recording to Miles Davis, "Selim Sivad," that also included a trio of African drummers. While the quartet most frequently appears on its own, it takes well to percussion, Bluiett said.

"The drums don't really change our concept," the baritone sax player said. "In fact, what we do comes right out of the drumming tradition anyway. Jack works well with us. The way he tunes his drums, the way he understands the history of the music. He becomes a part of our sound."

"It's nice without the bass because you can hear the relationship between the musicians better," DeJohnette said. "I play some piano and congas along with the drums. It's a very tight, very organic performance."

DeJohnette, among the most celebrated drummers of his generation, came out of Chicago in the 1960s to play gigs with John Coltrane and Jackie McLean before joining saxophonist Charles Lloyd's quartet in 1966. In 1969, he replaced Tony Williams in Miles Davis' band. He soon began recording under his own name, cutting dates for Milestone, Columbia (under the band name Compost) and ECM.

His Special Edition recordings for ECM in the late '70s, with such musicians as Blythe, Murray, saxophonist Chico Freeman, trumpeter Lester Bowie, guitarist John Abercrombie and others, were among the most important of that decade.

His music continues to defy easy categorization, ranging from the hard beats and electricity of 1988's "Audio Visualscapes" (on MCA) to the impressionistic "Oneness" released in 1996 by ECM. In addition, he holds one of the jazz world's most visible positions: drummer for pianist Keith Jarrett's much-vaunted trio.

*

Bluiett, who played with bassist Charles Mingus' ensemble in the early '70s, joined Murray, Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill to form the World Saxophone Quartet in 1976.

"We started out as the New York Saxophone Quartet, then found out there already was a New York Saxophone Quartet. So we became the Real New York Saxophone Quartet. But then we heard from [the other group's] lawyer. So we thought, we're bigger than this anyway, we want to include Africa in our concept, so we did away with artificial boundaries and became the World Saxophone Quartet."

Frequently described as an a cappella horn group, the quartet wove its members' eclectic solos through its four-horn arrangements on a series of recordings from Nonesuch and the Italian Black Saint label. Currently the foursome records for the Canadian Justin Time label.

The group won't limit itself to Ellington when it plays with DeJohnette this weekend. A Philadelphia concert earlier this week included selections from the Miles Davis tribute album as well as a long piece written by Purcell and inspired by the story of Pocahontas.

"But," Bluiett said, "it will all be in the spirit of Ellington. We'll keep in line with what he was doing. Hopefully, the master on high will be listening and approving of what we do."

* Jack DeJohnette and the World Saxophone Quartet play tonight and Saturday at Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. both nights. Early shows $36, late shows $32. (714) 556-2787.

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