Had he lived, Duke Ellington, who regarded the British as "the most civilized people in the world," would probably have jumped at the chance to compose a royal weeding suite for Prince Charles and Lady Diana. As it happened it was Oscar Peterson, himself a subject of the Crown, who undertook the task.
Jazz isn't exactly Prince Charles' cup of tea; as befits a prince, classical music is more to his liking. In fact, Buckingham Palace may be one of the few places where the name of the British composer Sir Edward Elgar is more of a household word than Sir Duke. Nonetheless, Ellington has a way with symphonic devices. His musical legacy is crowded with examples of what could be described in a strictly classical sense as programme music, music suggests ideas or events.
No contemporary jazz composer can match Ellington's output, of course, but Oscar Peterson at least had the advantage of writing several suites and film scores before he embarked on "A Royal Wedding Suite" (Pablo Today 2312-129).
The suite is divided into eight parts, beginning with a regal procession of brass that heralds the nuptials. "London Gets Ready" follows and quickly defines Peterson's approach. His phrasing is nowhere near as ornate or as prolix as one might expect given the nature of his assignment. Throughout the suite he frequently suppresses his characteristic tendency of fashioning complex patterns at the keyboard in favor of more simple melodic and often bluesy figures.
"When Summer Comes" is the album's first disappointment. A breezy Latin interlude with an engaging melody, the piece is compromised by a sappy string section and a length -- six minutes -- that is wholly unwarranted.
"It's on," however, recaptures the celebratory flavor. This is a rousing big-band chart, mighty in its its use of brass and paced by Peterson's fleet improvisations. Regrettably, the other musicians who distinguish themselves on this track -- as well as on the others -- go uncredited on the album sleeve.
Side one closes with "Heraldry," a witty, if not totally unexpected, segue from a sweeping patriotic march to a sly, invigorating jazz excursion. Since the pianist improves on the original chord changes, his final transition back to the initial theme is as seamless as the first.
On "Royal Honeymoon," Peterson returns to electric piano, his mood predictably soft and romantic. "Jubilation," however, is just the opposite. It's the closest thing to Ellingtonia on the album, full of riffing exchanges, colorful solos and elegant ensemble passages.
The suite concludes with three distinctly different compositions: "Lady Di's Waltz," a lovely addition to the growing library of jazz waltzes; "Let the World Sing," a less than royal and largely forgettable wedding of pop and jazz elements; and "The Empty Cathedral," a solemn, imposing and strictly orchestral coda, brings the suite to a fitting close, bells tolling in the distance.
Whether Prince Charles and Lady Diana will get to hear, much less enjoy, Peterson's suite is questionable; less questionable is the merit of the work. The big-band charts in particular reveal the pianist to be a talented orchestrator, and though this album is tied to today's events, it should stand on its own for some time.
Ellington's name is evoked once again on the new release by Charli Persip and Gerry LaFurn's 17-piece "Superband" (Stash St-209). White its name smacks of hyperhole, the band lives up to the billing thanks in no small part to exceptionally vivid arrangements from musicians like Slide Hampton, Frank Foster and Jack Walrath.
Walrath is responsible for "King Duke," which is as much a tribute to Charles Mingus as it is to Duke. The arrangement is draped in lush minor key sonorities nad distinguished by Bill Saxton's reflective tenor sax. Another Walrath contribution, "On the Road," gives the author an opportunity to step out front with his warm, genuinely expressive trumpet. The album brings together some of New York's finest musicians and arrangers for six exhilarating tracks.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for David Grusin and the GRP All-Stars "Live in Japan" (Arista 5506).By comparison this album, awash in shimmering electronics, seems absolutely inconsequential. Grusin's tunes are so light-weight, so devoid of melodic or rhythmic invention, that the album comes off sounding like so much sonic filler. The exceptions are Tom Browne's "Trade Winds," which will at least satisfy his growing fan club, and "Captain Caribe," which benefits from energetic performances by Sadao Watanabe and Dave Valentin.