A musical meeting of minds with Duke Ellington must certainly be the “Holy Grail” of many a composer and arranger no matter what language and idiom the musical tribute or acknowledgement will be played in. However, every musician who attempts that feat must invariably fall through the mythical trapdoor, like in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Duke is, after all, a composer and arranger whose instrument was his orchestra – as Billy Strayhorn so inspirationally pointed out. How, then does the composer (for only someone who thinks like – and is – one) translate Duke’s idiom into his or her own? This must have been a truly formidable challenge for Henry Brun, when he got down to record his Rhythms and Reeds… A Tribute to The Master Duke Ellington (Pulsar Records 2009).
Here is the challenge: Take some of the Duke’s most personal music – it is all personal really – and turn it all over to the Latin idiom and rhythm, which substitutes “swing” for “clave” whether obvious or implied. The second and more challenging task is to assign (instrumental) voices to play the melody and to harmonize and then to solo in the third voice so to speak. Should a flute solo or should a tenor? Should Johnny “Rabbit” Hodges slide in and swirl all over the tune and should a wailing Nance and his muted trumpet follow him… Conundrums like these occupied Duke and he cooked his music with the ingredients of his vastly talented instrumentalists in a myriad different ways. This is, after all, what made for the “Ellington Sound” and resulted in Strayhorn’s prophetic remark. Here, Brun is truly up for the challenge.
The other aspect of this music is that the Latin idiom is flamboyant (and may only be infinitely subtle when needed, but in a vastly different way). In addition, that too when strings are added for subtle changes in color. Brun employs none on this project, except the bass, which is played exclusively pizzacato. Bright Latin tones and colors are earthy and bold, whereas Duke could be fey and nuanced in a one-hundred-and-sixty-odd-shades-of-grey sort of way. Moreover, Duke’s hues were ever evolving shades of cyan and Bruns are in violet, magenta, yellow, and reds. Does that mean that Dukes music sounds necessarily brighter in Latin? Yes, because the piano and the clave hidden in Latin melodic deconstruction necessarily makes it so.
Brun paints subtle shades in the rhythm, playing his wide variety of percussion instruments with great sensitivity and finesse. He and pianist, Benjamin Irom make a glorious version of “In a Sentimental Mood” come to Ducal life with Pedro “Pete” Ojeda playing those dying end-notes to close Barnett’s and Irom’s phrases. Barnett’s solo is diaphanious and the ensemble captures perfectly the langorous “saudades” of the song.
Judi Deleón fits the vocal part of the orchestra well with her sinewy, bluesy approach to song. She brings a nervy vulnerability to “Lover Man,” not exactly a song from the Ellington songbook, but one that offers a refreshing perspective on Billie Holiday’s classic song nevertheless. “Gabe” Pintor on the moving version of “Solitude,” conjours another Ducal alum, Ben Webster, with his breath-and emotion-filled saxophone as he literally carries the song, while Brun is outstanding as he dances in a slow bolero just under the melody. “Gabe” Pintor is stellar again, as he carrys the melody of “Sophisticated Lady” from start to finish. A vastly slowed- down version of “Fleurette Africaine” stars pianist, Benjamin Irom and majestic harmonics from bassist, George Prado, as is Brun’s harmonically strong tumbadoras work.
It is infinitely possible, though not necessarily easy to find the pocket for Dukes more danceable songs, such as “Perdido,” “C-Jam Blues” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing).” Still it is a great challenge to keep the integrity of the melody, while creating a “clave equavalent” of the swing of delight in each of the songs. Brun seems to have cracked the Ducal code in all of the above.
“Caravan” is very possibly the finest rearrangement of a song in the Duke’s ouvre. It is possible to see hip-swinging dancers in the Caribbean sashaying with elegantly bred Bedouin as the proverbial “Caravan” moves to an inevitable conclusion. The playfully sinister bassline lays down a perfect groove for the piano con clave too.
So what happens when a Latin plays a tribute to “The Master Duke Ellington”? Strange and wonderful things happen. How about: Duke must be beaming enigmatically in heaven as he shadow-conducts this wonderful ensemble saying, “I told you so…” The music he lovingly called jazz is truly universal.
Tracks: Upper Manhattan Medical Group (U.M.M.G); Satin Doll (Muñeca); Flamingo; In a Sentimental Mood; Lover Man; Solitude; Perdido; Sophisticated Lady; C Jam Blues; In a Mellow Tone; It don’t Mean a Thing (If you Ain’t Got That Swing); Cotton Tail; Fleurette Africaine; Caravan (La Caravana Reprise).
Personnel: Henry Brun: tumbadoras, quinto, bongo, cowbell, timbales, cúa, maracas, guiro, shakers, clave; Travis Davis: piano, keyboards; Rafael “Ralph” Petitón: electric bass; Gabriel “Gabe” Pintor: alto and tenor saxophone; Judi Deleón: vocals; Justo Almario: alto and tenor saxophone & flute (1, 12); Vernon “Spot” Barnett: tenor saxophone (4); Dr. John Mills: tenor saxophone and flute (5, 8, 11); Phillippe Vieux: baritone saxophone (5, 11); Dr. Benjamin Irom: piano (4, 13); Pedro “Pete” Ojeda: electric bass (4); George Prado: double bass (13).
Henry Brun on the web: www.henrybrun.com
Review written by: Raul da Gama