Last year Gunther Schuller conducted the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble in a performance of Duke Ellington's "Symphony in Black and Other Works" at Baird Auditorium. Listening to the recently released recording of that concert (Smithsonian N024), it's hard to say what's more impressive: the ensemble or Schuller's detective work.
"Symphony in Black" is hardly one of Ellington's better-known works. It is not a symphony at all but rather a suite comprised of a series of pieces Ellington wrote in the early '30s and later abbreviated for use as a soundtrack to the 1935 film "Symphony in Black." The film, a musical featuring the Ellington Orchestra and a newcomer by the name of Billie Holliday, eventually won an Oscar, but Ellington's score lay dormant until Schuller revived it last year.
Reconstructing the suite was no mean accomplishment. Since a written arrangement couldn't be found, the music had to be painstakingly transcribed from the movie's soundtrack.
Fortunately, the 17-member ensemble includes the sort of distinctive soloists Ellington always coveted. The contrasting colors and individuality of expression so much a part of the Ellington tradition are evident immediately in the way Bob Wilber's breathy, languorous alto sax is offset by trombonist Jack Gale's astringent tone on "The Laborers." No less colorful is the casual exchange between clarinetist Lawrence Feldman and trumpeter David Berger on "Dance," or the sound of Rick Wald plumbing the depths of "Big City Blues" on bass clarinet. But more important than individual contributions is the consistent ensemble performance.
"Harlem Rhythm," a swing number based on Ellington's 1935 "Merry Go Round," is a particularly vivid reminder of the Duke -- a rollicking, riffing and circuitous run through the scales that brings the suite to a big, vibrant close.
Side two of the album also focuses on several of Ellington's lesser-known works, though his hit "I'm Beginning to See the Light" receives another airing. Each tune has something to recommend it, but trombonist Jimmy Knepper's exquisite reading of Juan Tizol's "Night Song" and the curiously swinging atonality expressed in "The Clothed Woman" stand out.
Another Smithsonian release, more in keeping with its series of jazz reissues, is "Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet in New York 1923-25" (Smithsonian R026). This is a fitting companion piece to the Armstrong collections previously issued by the Smithsonian, featuring King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines. The purpose here, however, is not to examine Armstrong's collaboration with a given musician so much as it is to trace the parallel, sometimes converging paths taken by the great jazz trumpeter and his most worthy rival, Sidney Bechet.
Thus, Armstrong and Bechet are heard in a variety of contexts, alone and together. Most of these 32 tracks are readily available elsewhere; the real value of this collection lies in Lew Porter's carefully researched notes, Porter delineating some of the more important qualities that made Bechet and Armstrong such formidable yet distinctive soloists.
The records provide revealing examples of how Armstrong logically constructed his solos; how his subdivision of the quarter note lent the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra a much-needed swing pulse; and how his enduring debt to King Oliver frequently colored his playing. Bechet receives the same meticulous attention. Porter's premise is simply that by using these and other techniques, Bechet extended the New Orleans clarinet tradition, and Armstrong then adapted it to suit his own purposes. The evidence is conclusive; the music thoroughly enjoyable.
Other jazz albums released locally include Jimmy McGriff's "Movin' Upside the Blues" (JAM 005), and the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band's "Tanuki's Night Out" (JAM 006).
The former re-establishes McGriff as a true heavyweight among jazz organists. No longer dabbling in disco, McGriff has produced a solid blues album with considerable help from guitarist Jimmy Ponder, saxophonist Arnold Sterling and trumpeter Bill Hardman.
"Tanuki's Night Out" affords Lew Tabackin a rare opportunity to step out front as a composer. Though Toshiko Akiyoshi's arrangements fall short of most of her imaginative work, Tabackin's affectionate tributes to Don Byas and Sonny Criss are genuinely moving, as is his restless flute solo on a lovely selection titled "The Falling Petal.