Gerry Mulligan alluded Saturday night to the "dues" he has paid -- dues, incidentally, that have included big-band apprenticeship in the '40s; a pivotal role in the cool sounds of the '50s; compulsive participation in jam sessions wherever and whenever, and professional association with Gene Krupa, Miles Davis and Art Farmer. He has also composed and arranged for jazz orchestra, and led his own groups, large and small.
Mulligan's stunning and brilliant opener of the Smithsonian Jazz Heritage Series will be a hard act to follow, His 15-piece New Concert Jazz Band is polished but loose and swinging, unerringly responsive to its leader, yet lists among its ranks some strong individualists.
The leader's own pieces included an abandoned "Maytag" on which the contrasting trumpet voices of John Coles and Glenn Drewes stood out, a relaxed "Unfinished Woman" and "Taurus Moon," with the singing phrases of bassist Frank Luther. "Walk on the Water" was a vehicle for Mulligan's turbulent soprano sax, while in "Out Back of the Barn" his baritone got down in the dirt.
Ellington was eerily evoked in his own "Across the Track Blues" by Harold Danko's terse piano and the train sounds of the ensemble. Mulligan's "K-4 Pacific" was a compositional gem that, in stop-time, passed through one station after another. "Satin Doll," a second encore, transposed Billy Strayhorn's original piano intro to a plunger-muted brass section.
Soprano sexophonist Steve Lacy is next in the series on Sunday, Nov. 2.