If Duke Ellington were alive today, he would lead a group similar to saxophonist David Murray's Big Band, one that brims with eccentric voices and is driven by a singular vision. Saturday night at Lisner Auditorium, the band delivered an edgy, hotblooded performance that celebrated "The Obscure Works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn."
Because the compositions are embedded with a subtle dissonance, the Ellington songbook lends itself easily to these musicians, many of whom have been associated with the jazz avant-garde. They performed an enchanting reading of "Chelsea Bridge," which featured a beautifully burly tenor solo from Murray, and also offered the majestic roar of "Such Sweet Thunder," which was brightened by a venomous trombone brawl created by Joe Bowie, Craig Harris and Gary Valente.
For the opening, "African Flower," Murray scripted an evocative intro that featured him on bass clarinet in a duet with hand percussionist Klod Kiavue, while Newton's expansive arrangement of Strayhorn's luminous "Northern Lights" evoked the spacious imagery of auroras across the Canadian sky. Another highlight was vocalist Carmen Bradford, whose hearty tone imbued "Warm Valley" with gospel-tinged intensity. When she led the band with a testifying reading of "Love You Madly" it was clear that the David Murray Big Band had given Ellington a tribute worthy of his oft-used phrase "beyond category."