Saturday, March 2, 2013

Buffalo Philharmonic Records 'Harlem,' 'Three Black Kings,' 'The River' & 'Take the “A” Train' on 'Duke Ellington: Black, Brown, and Beige' on Naxos

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974)
is featured at 

Duke Ellington: Black, Brown, and Beige 
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra 
JoAnn Falletta, Conductor 
Naxos 8.559737 (2013)

The newly-released Naxos disc Duke Ellington: Black, Brown, and Beige is performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Music Director JoAnn Falletta. She engages in a brief but fascinating discussion of the album in a Naxos Podcast, JoAnn Falletta talks to Gail Wein. Falletta pays tribute to three soloists who help make the program swing: Sal Andolina, Trumpet and Alto Saxophone; Tony Di Lorenzo, Trumpet; and the Philharmonic's own Amy Licata, Violin. 

This disc is particularly meaningful to us. Duke Ellington is featured as a Composer of African Descent at because of two works on the CD, Harlem (14:27) and Suite from 'The River' (21:04). Both were recorded on Chandos in 1993 by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi. Suite from 'The River' was paired with William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American). Harlem shared a disc with William Levi Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony and William Grant Still's Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race).

Edward Yadzinski writes in the liner notes: “Ellington’s trove of hit-tunes and recordings (Sophisticated Lady, Mood Indigo, Satin Doll, etc) are perhaps best-known among about a thousand pieces, including hundreds of jazz-inspired works for diverse genres including vocals, big-band, film, opera, ballet, sacred pieces, Broadway shows, theater music and instrumental suites.”

“In 1950 Duke paid tribute to his roots with a jazz portrait titled Harlem. He later added a provocative sub-title to the piece—A Tone Parallel to Harlem. Orchestrated by Maurice Peress, the piece is replete with emotive effects.”

Yadzinski continues: “Reflecting his view that music could deliver a message from the national experience, in the early 1930s Ellington conceived Black, Brown and Beige, a tribute to the nation’s African-American heritage.” “For the premier of the piece at Carnegie Hall in late January of 1943, the composer provided brief descriptions of each movement.” Black represents “African American faith in prayer and hard work.” Brown honors “African-American soldiers who fought and gave their lives” from the Civil War to World war II. “Beige is an evocation of the Renaissance in African American music, conjuring the night life of Harlem.” “After the first performance of Black, Brown, and Beige (fifty minutes in duration), Ellington derived the current suite, which was then orchestrated by Maurice Peress.”

The ballet Trois Rois Noirs (Three Black Kings) was completed by the composer's son, Mercer Ellington. The three kings are Balthazar, the King of the Magi; King Solomon; and Martin Luther King.

The Suite from 'The River' is a work which was commissioned in 1970 by the American Ballet Theater, the notes tell us, to be choreographed by Alvin Ailey. The composer produced nine ballet scenes, Edward Yadzinski writes. This recording includes five: The Spring, The Meander, The Giggling Rapids, The Lake, and The River.

Take the 'A' Train was composed in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn and arranged by Duke Ellington. The title famously refers to instructions Ellington had given Strayhorn for taking the New York City subway to Ellington's apartment. The liner notes add: “While the title refers to the subway system in New York, the ‘A’ title became a reference to the spirit of America as the nation rallied itself to the call of duty in Europe and across the Pacific. The piece ranks among the most widely arranged and recorded standards of all time.”

Reviewing this disc has been a real pleasure, and we have saved the complete program in a music player for future listening.

Disclosure: A review copy of this recording was provided by the record label.

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