One could conceivably divide a Duke Ellington tribute into dozens of segments, each devoted to a facet of his genius and legacy. Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, however, host, producer and jazz scholar Martin Williams made sure the scope was manageably narrow, with the emphasis on solo piano, song and instrumental works.
Fortunately, the program didn't serve up the usual Ellingtonia. Pianist Mark Tucker's performance, for example, was distinguished by "The Clothed Woman," a seldom heard 1947 composition that wrapped dissonant harmonies and brooding textures around an emphatic bass-driven interlude. Far more accessible but still rarely performed as a solo piece was "New World A-Coming," rendered by Tucker with percussive vitality.
Ronnie Wells and her husband, pianist Ron Elliston, led a quartet through a similarly refreshing set. Even when Wells delivered an Ellington classic -- "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)," for example -- the arrangements generally placed them in a new light, but her best moments came when a relatively obscure, minor key melody or the scat-punctuated "I Didn't Know About You" displayed her supple and soulful voice in less familiar settings.
The Great American Music Ensemble, a repertory jazz octet directed by Doug Richards, brought the concert to a vibrantly colorful close. Again the focus was on lesser known pieces, ranging from the simple but subtly orchestrated 1938 lament "Blue Light" to the rambunctious finale, "Barney Goin' Easy"/"I'm Checking Out, Goombye." Attention to detail is not the least of this band's strengths, but its reverence for Ellington's canon didn't prevent several soloists from having their say as well.