Mark Masters Ensemble Featuring Gary Smulyan - Ellington Saxophone Encounters (Capri, 2012)
Mark Masters, who runs the American Jazz Institute, has brought together a fine group of musicians to play a group of songs associated with the legendary composer and bandleader Duke Ellington. Using baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan as a featured soloist on a number of tracks, Masters arranges for a strong small big band that frames the soloists well, and keeps the performances strong and on point. The album opens with “Esquire Swank” which has a classy devil may care theme, with Smulyan’s baritone bursting free and framed well by the other lush horns. A nice piano, bass and drums interlude and tenor saxophone feature round out a swinging performance. There is a jumping piano trio introduction to “The Line Up” followed by spirited big band horns, and strong and ripe baritone which trades off passages with other saxophones in the group. Also featured is a nimble bass solo with the horns gently shading, before everyone comes back for the conclusion. Written to spotlight the great trombonist, “Lawrence Brown Blues,” is an uptempo performance with baritone soaring over riffing horns and strong drumming. Excellent loping bass moves things along briskly, with different saxophones getting a turn in the brisk arrangement. “Ultra Blue” has a ripe baritone solo giving way to alto sax as the group moves amiably through a medium tempo performance. There is space for rippling piano trio, followed by stately baritone and bass soloing. Riotous riffing announces “Used to Be Duke” before Smuylan breaks out with a confident and fast solo. Saxophones joust and wail over some inspired accompaniment. Luxurious horns on the Johnny Hodges tribute “Jeeps Blues” frame and nearly smother Smulyan’s baritone, who gamely fights for space. “Get Ready” has light saxophone opening, before brawny baritone weaves in and out of the horns. There is a loose, easy feel to this song, like everybody is just playing to have fun. “Rockin’ In Rhythm” is a blasting tune with the horns all chiming in and then laying the foundation for the saxophones to blaze overhead. Drums and piano are key here, developing percussive rhythms that keep the music moving aggressively forward. Focusing on songs that were written or co-written by Ellington's sidemen gives this album a bit of a different slant, spotlighting some lesser known compositions with fine arrangements and soloing.