Ellington Songbook Featured at Stanford Jazz Festival 2014

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Image courtesy of By Nick Coombs, published 2008, at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

San Francisco Bay Area musician, composer, and educator, Marcus Shelby, brought his jazz orchestra to the Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford University on an unseasonably warm June afternoon for a celebration of the music of Duke Ellington. Also featured with the Marcus Shelby Orchestra was gifted jazz singer Denise Perrier, who has a rich history of performing and recording with such jazz greats as Red Holloway and Houston Person. The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra is a performing orchestra which plays many venues, jazz clubs, colleges, and festivals. In fact, the MSJO had just recently played a concert in May at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall featuring the music of Duke Ellington – his renowned Such Sweet Thunder Suite. Marcus Shelby is a prolific composer and arranger who has composed and recorded three soul-stirring creations depicting very heroic and tragic events in African- American history for which he has received numerous grants and commissions: Port Chicago, Harriet Tubman, and Soul of the Movement. The members of MSJO also pursue their own career paths, and many of the band members have their own jazz ensembles. The featured vocalist, Denise Perrier, has traveled extensively throughout the world performing on concert stages in Europe and Asia as well as the United States. Ms. Perrier’s acknowledged idols are Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington. The pairing of Denise Perrier with the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra appeared to be an inspired decision as both artists have a strong appreciation for and love of the music associated with Duke Ellington.

The artistic and executive director for the Stanford Jazz Festival, Jim Nadel, welcomed everyone to an afternoon celebrating the music of Duke Ellington. He told the audience how pleased and happy they were to secure the talents of  Marcus Shelby and Denise Perrier. Mr. Nadel acknowledged some of the Bay Area jazz celebrities in the audience such as Sonny Buxton, the founder of legendary Pearl’s Night Club in San Francisco, and program announcer on Jazz FM 91.1 KCSM. He also informed the audience that several very talented students from this year’s Stanford Jazz camp and last year’s student camp would be joining the orchestra at various intervals to take solos and to join the ensemble. The concert soon began as the band leader and bassist, Marcus Shelby, took the stage wearing his trademark wool fedora. He started off with Juan Tizol’s composition Perdido (using the 1950’s Ellington Uptown arrangement.)

The challenge that all artists have in presenting the music of an earlier jazz style is how to stay true to the original while presenting music that is vital and dynamic today. Duke Ellington himself faced this same issue since his band recorded over five full decades. He had to face this challenge every time new members joined his orchestra while established artists left. Marcus Shelby has chosen to follow Ellington’s strategy by allowing the members of his orchestra the latitude to play their own solos in their own style incorporating all the newest developments in jazz. At the same time the concert goer to this event could clearly sense how much respect and admiration for the Duke Ellington organization is exemplified by the Shelby Jazz Orchestra. The Ellington sound was clearly evident in many of the ensemble passages, while the individual members of the orchestra developed their own solos which reflected their skills and strengths. The alto sax soloist, Marcus Stephens, played a beautiful Johnny Hodges style alto passage on I Let a Song Go out of My Heart. The trumpet section was outstanding. On occasion two trumpets would improvise collectively just as the Ellington trumpet section was wont to do. Fil Lorenz on baritone sax delivered outstanding solos which grew organically from the source material but became his own creation through improvisation. Tom Griesser is a major saxophone talent whose solos were strikingly original and compelling. The entire sax section delighted and surprised the audience when they doubled on clarinet for the melodic blues Creole Love Call. This arrangement was a direct reproduction of Ellington’s 1932 arrangement. Trumpeter Geechi Taylor provided the Ellington touch with his mute and ‘growl’ trumpet obbligatos.

Shelby directed the band by standing with his back to the audience but facing the musicians, in a manner similar to other famous bassist/band leaders such as Chubby Jackson and Charles Mingus. The sound of his bass was deep, rhythmic, and firm. The second concert piece was a vigorous performance by the pianist, Joe Warner, of James P. Johnson’s You Gotta Be Modernistic. Director Shelby told the audience he wanted to include this piece since Ellington was strongly influenced by the great Harlem stride pianists of his day, and James P. Johnson, was perhaps the strongest influence on the young Ellington. The concert segued into such familiar Ellington compositions as: In My Solitude, Creole Love Call, and C Jam Blues. One of the advantages of having jazz greats performing at the festival is it gives an opportunity for graduates and participants of the Stanford Jazz Camp an opportunity each year to perform with seasoned veterans. This year was no exception. Joining the trombone section of the Marcus Shelby Orchestra was a young woman who only graduated from the Stanford Jazz Camp last year and is now a professional musician living and working in New York. She took a full 32-bar solo on the beautiful Ellington ballad “All Too Soon” as well as contributing several other shorter solos on other Ellington compositions. Also joining the band before the headliner appeared was a young man who is a current student at Jazz Camp. He sang on Solitude and Caravan and his deep voice and relaxed style were a big hit with the audience. When the Orchestra moved into high gear with C Jam Blues with solos from the saxophones, trumpets and trombones, pianist Joe Warner completed the rhythm-section sound with his Ellingtonesque chords. It is interesting to note that the band director used a Count Basie arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Solitude letting the trumpets give free range to their employment of wa-wa and plunger mutes which blended the band sounds of both the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras.

It was a full hour before Ms. Denise Perrier, took the stage. She kicked things off with a vigorous It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing. There are some singers who can take a song that everyone has heard a million times, and sing it in a way where you have never heard the song before. Denise Perrier is such a vocalist. Her voice was beautiful, distinctive, bold, and sinewy. Her control of timing, swing and tempo was a pleasure to hear. A true jazz singer, vocalist, and song stylist! She then introduced her own Ellington Medley which was especially arranged for her by Wayne Wallace, the famed trombone player, arranger and composer who has succeeded David Baker as the new Director of Jazz Studies at Indiana University. This arrangement showcased five familiar Ellington melodies: Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, Mood Indigo, Satin Doll, and ending with Take The A Train. The originality of the medley arrangement plus the verve and sophistication of Ms. Perrier’s interpretations made each song a gem to be treasured. After the Ellington Medley, Marcus Shelby, mentioned that sometimes small groups of sextet or septet size would often record and perform selections from the Ellington Songbook. These groups, he mentioned, were often led by Johnny Hodges or Billy Strayhorn. In the spirit of these smaller groups, Denise Perrier, sang two classics: All Too Soon and I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. It was All Too Soon with a gorgeous 32-bar trombone solo (reminiscent of Lawrence Brown) and a bass solo performed by Shelby which to my ears stole the show. Ms. Perrier’s voice, the bass, and the shimmering trombone cadenza were sheer musical ambrosia. The Ellington Songbook Concert closed with Denise Perrier singing a rousing, spritely version of I’m Just a Lucky So and So. After wonderful ensemble passages, a great vocal treatment, and many fine solos by the full band (and especially the drummer, Jeff Marrs) the concert came to a close – a full two hours after it had begun. The audience gave the artists a long standing ovation. Many in the audience could have stayed for an additional hour or two, but as Marcus Shelby said to us, “There is just too much music in the Ellington Book…thousands and thousands of songs, suites, and concert pieces…which cannot be played in a single day” – although, some of us would have been happy should he have chosen to try.

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