PostClassical Ensemble’s Sophisticated Ellington

“What on earth would I want with strings?”

That quote from Duke Ellington, which appeared in a 1951 issue of “Down Beat,” gives a sense of the deeply rooted, inimitable quality of the legendary bandleader’s music. He preferred that you didn’t call it “jazz.” It, and he, were “beyond category.”

“Beyond Category,” then, was an apt title for PostClassical Ensemble’s April 16 performance in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, subtitled “The Concert Music of Duke Ellington.” The event was one of at least half a dozen musical tributes to Ellington this spring in his home city, including two Terrace Theater performances on March 15 by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, conducted by his grandson Paul.

Today, April 29, is Ellington’s 125th birthday.

Dr. John E. Hasse, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History — which holds some 100,000 pages of unpublished music by Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn — served as guest curator of the PostClassical concert. In the post-show talkback, Hasse called Ellington “the greatest son of Washington, D.C.” (Probably true, but let’s not forget John Philip Sousa and Marvin Gaye.)

Sir Duke — as Stevie Wonder called him — billed his band as an orchestra, though at its peak there were fewer than 20 instruments: usually five saxophones, four trumpets, three trombones, bass (sometimes two), drums, guitar (earlier, banjo), piano (himself) and a singer when appropriate.

It was less than half that size at the start of Ellington’s near-50-year bandleading career, when in 1925 he headed up the Washingtonians, performing on West 49th Street in New York. Two years later, the band moved to Harlem’s whites-only Cotton Club. When in 1929 CBS Radio began to broadcast those performances coast-to-coast, he became a national star.

The total number of players on April 16, led by PostClassical’s founding Music Director Angel Gil-Ordóñez, was 41, including (horrors!) 14 strings and three guests: pianist Ellington Carthan, named for you-guessed-it, a former Strathmore artist-in-residence completing his master’s in music at Howard University; tenor saxophonist Scott Silbert, chief arranger of the Navy Band from 1991 to 2017, who now works with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, founded by Hasse; and conguero (conga player) Felix Contreras, host of the “Alt.Latino” program on NPR.

With the exception of the closing number, the seven-part program featured works much less familiar than classic Ellington tunes such as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Satin Doll,” “Mood Indigo” and the band’s signature “Take the ‘A’ Train,” composed by Strayhorn.

First, Carthan performed a charming version of “Dancers in Love,” a solo piano piece from the 1944 “Perfume Suite,” with the audience finger-snapping along, as Ellington intended.

Next came Maurice Peress’s condensation of the “Black, Brown and Beige Suite.” In its original form, presented at Ellington’s 1949 Carnegie Hall debut, the piece, subtitled “A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America,” lasted about 45 minutes.

Unavoidably, this 18-minute orchestrated version is something of a sampler. However, the main themes, “The Work Song,” associated with slavery, and “Come Sunday,” with the church, came through strongly, as did the Ellingtonian harmonies and calling-card brass growls. Despite the absence of Ellington’s remarkable soloists — alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Cootie Williams, to name two — the ensemble gave a convincing impression of a big band when called for in the “Beige” section, an evocation of Harlem.

With principal cello Benjamin Capps playing the original bowed-bass part, Carthan then performed “A Single Petal of a Rose,” a lovely movement from “The Queen’s Suite.” In 1959, Ellington sent a private recording of the suite to Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate their meeting a year earlier. A slide of that encounter was projected on a large screen at the rear of the stage; several other images, including score pages, were keyed to other works on the program.

Also dating to 1959, two pieces from Ellington’s score for the Otto Preminger film “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Almost Cried” and “Grace Valse,” followed, arranged by Silbert, who soloed. The first, in particular, showed how well Ellington’s music can be translated for performance by a chamber orchestra, at least one as carefully assembled and conducted as PostClassical.

The five movements from “The River” were the highlight of the evening for this writer. This American Ballet Theatre commission premiered at Lincoln Center in 1970 with choreography by Alvin Ailey (it remains in the Ailey repertory). The suite was conceived by Ellington as tracing the course of a river, symbolic, naturally, of life. PostClassical performed the first four movements — “The Spring,” “The Meander,” The Giggling Rapids” and “The Lake” — and the last, “Village Virgins.”

As arranged by Ron Collier for performance by ABT’s pit band, the five contrasting, subtly shifting movements were an opportunity to showcase several of PostClassical’s instrumentalists, notably hornist Evan Geiger (I believe), oboist Fatma Daglar and harpist Eric Sabatino in the “oriental”-tinged “The Spring”; and pianist Audrey Andrist and flutists Kimberly Valerio and Stephanie Ray in several movements, especially Valerio in the a cappella passages of “The Meander.” “The Giggling Rapids,” a brassy, up-tempo movement in ¾ time, was a crowd-pleaser.

The concert concluded with two inventive Silbert arrangements: “Where’s the Music” of 1957, originally scored for septet, bluesy with clarinet embroiderings and a wah-wah trumpet solo; and “Caravan” of 1936, an Ellington classic based on a theme by Puerto Rican valve trombonist Juan Tizol. Conguero Contreras provided a solo intro and two spirited cadenzas along the way.

Instead of valve trombone, the melody was played by oboe and flute. Later on, trumpet and violin were paired (concertmaster Netanel Draiblate’s ability to play softly yet command attention was valuable here and elsewhere). By the time a trumpet began to screech like Cat Anderson, the audience was fully participating.






One comment on “PostClassical Ensemble’s Sophisticated Ellington”

  • Melvin Hardy says:

    In all things “Sir Duke” this 125th Anniversary year, my wife, Juanita and I had the benefit of being elevated by Jason Moran’s interpretations of Ellington’s piano solos. We also witnessed the Cyrus Chestnut/Malcolm Merriweather team’s delivery of “The Sacred Concerts” on The Duke’s birthday.

    Our nation revels in The Kennedy Center’s wisdom and institutional prowess in providing summa-cum-laude experiences for all Americans, in this case the fundament of American modernity in high art…jazz and classical music. With the writing of this article in the Georgetowner, we are indebted to The PostClassical Ensemble’s distinctive signature in interpreting much of important Americana, to which I give my eternal thanks.

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