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Jazz Review

Examining Ellington, With a Touch of Strayhorn

May 27, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The annual conferences of the Duke Ellington Study Group can best be described as musical love feasts--entertaining, often informative tributes to the art and the artistry of one of the premier creative minds of the 20th century.

This year's event, sponsored by the Duke Ellington Society of Southern California, began Wednesday night and continues through Sunday at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

Some of the highlights among the numerous presentations: drummer-musicologist Anthony Brown's discussion of "Intercultural Music Practices," especially as they related to his Grammy-nominated recording of Ellington's "Far East Suite"; veteran record producer George Avakian's recollections of the complicated circumstances surrounding the production of Ellington's best-selling album "Ellington at Newport"; and Steve Hancoff's performance of Ellington works adapted for solo guitar.

The first major musical event took place Thursday night with an appearance by the Tom Talbert Orchestra, playing selections from the Ellington-inspired CD "Duke's Domain." Interestingly, however, a substantial portion of the program was actually devoted to pieces by Billy Strayhorn ("Take the 'A' Train," "Chelsea Bridge," etc.)--a kind of unexpressed musical subtext to the conference, underscoring the importance of Strayhorn to the Ellington lexicon.

The Talbert Orchestra performance was also intriguing in the sense that it illuminated the extent to which Ellington's music was inextricably tied to his own set of players. It is by now a truism that Ellington (and Strayhorn) composed for the individuals in the Ellington Orchestra, writing to the special qualities of each of the players. The result was an utterly unique sound, one that can never be reproduced in the same way by a different set of musicians.

To his credit, Talbert orchestrated the works differently, the ensemble passages less a collection of individual sounds, more a reflection of his own brightly swinging, West Coast orientation. In that sense, the program was--as it should have been--a tribute rather than an attempt at a simulation. Yet all good intentions aside, it was difficult to hear the Ellington/Strayhorn classics without recalling the incomparable original versions.

The conference continues today with seminars featuring bandleader Gerald Wilson, a panel discussion among players who participated in the recording of the Ellington score for the film "Assault on a Queen" and an examination of Ellington's sacred works. Film archivist Mark Cantor also presents a program of Ellington film appearances, including 15 minutes of previously unseen footage from the 1941 production of "Jump for Joy."

Tonight's performance features a small group program including, among others, Bill Berry, Buster Cooper, Gerald Wiggins, Kenny Burrell, Barbara McNair, Art Baron and others, and the conference winds up Sunday with a guided bus tour of Ellington-associated sites in Hollywood and along Central Avenue.

Tickets are still available for some events.

Information: (310) 399-3112.

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