Ellington’s World Comes to Edinburgh

One of the most prestigious – and ambitious – items in this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme is a concert by a brand-new, specially-formed band on the penultimate night of the ten-day event. And, bizarrely, we have the Olympics to thank for it ..

Festival producer Roger Spence explains: “The idea is that in the Olympic year, when people are coming from all over the world to London, we thought we could create a concert programme which reflects jazz as an international music. In recent years, we’ve established the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra – the concept of which is to blend eight Scottish musicians with eight international ones – but with the World Jazz Orchestra, every single member of the band comes from a different country – we have musicians coming from all over the globe.”

Taking this idea and running with it, 100-metre style, Spence realised that there was one obvious body of work from which a programme could be formed for this melting pot band. “We know that jazz is international but we wanted music with a universal appeal and for a big event like this, we had to choose a composer who is regarded by many as the very best – so we chose Duke Ellington. And the wonderful thing about Duke Ellington as far as this project is concerned, is that he wrote music inspired by music and countries all over the world. We can reflect different flavours of world music through the prism of one composer.”

The choice of Duke Ellington led straight back to Scotland and to the jazz festival itself: over recent years, the great, Fife-born baritone saxophonist and one-time member of the Ellington band Joe Temperley (pictured above) has forged a strong relationship with the festival. “He was the obvious choice to lead the World Jazz Orchestra,” explains Spence. Temperley is more familiar than most with the vast Ellington repertoire: not only did he play in the band, following the death of its original baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, but he has also – in the context of his membership of Wynton Marsalis’s acclaimed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – played many of the Duke’s seldom-performed suites.

And key excerpts from one such suite are at the heart of next Saturday’s concert. Along with such exotic pieces as the Far East Suite and the Latin-American Suite, the orchestra will play some of Ellington’s landmark Black, Brown and Beige, which was performed for the first time by the Ellington band for its Carnegie Hall debut in 1943. This historic concert in aid of Russian War Relief was sold out (3000 seats) days beforehand but the demand for tickets remained so intense that a further 200 people were seated on the stage.

For Ellington aficionados, the 47-minute tone poem, which fused jazz, blues, spirituals and Spanish influences, and reflected the Afro-American experience from the arrival of the first wave of slaves off boats in 1619, was a thrill to hear – though the critics were not as quick to embrace this, the jazz composer’s first, full-blown suite. Jazz critics worried that he was forsaking jazz (though he had written a number of extended compositions before, including Symphony in Black which had similar themes), while the classical world was dismissive of his aspirations as a “serious” composer.

Indeed, Ellington – who later said: “We stopped using the word jazz in 1943; that was the point when we didn’t believe in categories” – never performed it again in its entirety in concert though he recorded numerous versions of it. Some parts of it – notably the magnificent spiritual Come Sunday, written for the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and performed by him at Carnegie Hall almost before the ink had dried on the arrangements – have taken on a life of their own. On the Ellington orchestra’s 1958 recording of Black, Brown and Beige, Come Sunday was sung by Mahalia Jackson. Since then, vocalists as diverse as jazz singer Lee Wiley and soul singer Gladys Knight have performed it – and in Edinburgh next week, it will be sung by Cecile McLorin Salvant, whom Temperley recommended for the job.

For the octogenarian musician, it’s a joy to be able to bring this music to an Edinburgh audience. “I love Black, Brown and Beige,” he says. “It’s one of my very favourite Ellington suites. I’m particularly fond of the version with Ben Webster where he plays the solo on The Blues. We’ll be doing that piece in Edinburgh, with the Danish tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo following in the footsteps of Webster, Al Sears and Paul Gonsalves.”

Of course, Black, Brown and Beige – as with all of Ellington’s work – was written specifically for the musicians in his band at the time; for their individual and combined sounds. Temperley says: “The secret of Ellington’s success was the ‘Ellingtonians’ – Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges etc. He wrote for them. It was like a Shakespeare company. It was more than a band; it was a collection of individuals that came together and were marshalled together in an unusual way – those different voicings he used, like two trombones and a baritone.. He did not have those in mind harmonically; he was thinking of the personalities of the musicians who’d be playing.”

Given this, is it more of a challenge to play Ellington’s music; do you approach it differently? “I would say so. If you play a Basie arrangement, it’s pretty straight-ahead. With Ellington, you have to bear in mind the people who went before, and not try to impersonate them. Of course you’re influenced by them, but you shouldn’t try to sound like them.” A tall order – but Temperley and his international team will no doubt have earned their gold medals by the time they’ve completed their Ellington marathon.

* The World Jazz Orchestra plays at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, July 28. For more information visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 19, 2012

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