- The River, suite from the ballet for orchestra
Orchestration was Duke Ellington's forte, and it is not a great challenge to adapt his works for full symphony orchestra. The challenge is even slighter in the large tone poems with which Ellington occupied himself for most of the later part of his career; these works, which make up the bulk of the program here, are already written for large group and are replete with instrumental effects. Generally speaking, the arrangers here have transferred some of the wind lines to the orchestral strings and left Ellington's brass writing intact. Indeed, the biggest problem with these works is not as classical music -- Ellington's ambitions clearly went in that direction -- but as jazz: the solos were written for musicians with whom Ellington worked closely, and nobody else can quite duplicate their particular texture and snap. This said, the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta is filled with musicians with plenty of experience in performing jazz, and this release is nowhere less than enjoyable. Its primary interest lies in the late works, which may be uneven but which show the aging composer continuing to explore new ideas drawn equally from jazz, classical orchestral repertory, and (an underappreciated component of his later style) film music. The album contains Ellington's last composition, the ballet "Les Trois Rois Noirs" (The Three Black Kings, referring to the King of the Magi, Solomon, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in whose memory the music was composed). The graphics erroneously give a 1943 date for this work, which was left unfinished at Ellington's death in 1974 and completed by his son. It is quite unlike any other classical-jazz crossover work, with highly original musical imagery. The opening King of the Magi movement is a stylized boogie woogie, focusing unexpectedly on the travels of the Magi to see Jesus, not on the luxury of conventional iconography. The middle King Solomon movement could have come from a film score, while the MLK finale has a warm jubilee mood. "The River" (1970) is another underplayed score; its images of the Mississippi River are similarly inventive. Bookending these are the more familiar "Black, Brown and Beige" suite, "Harlem," and, most familiar of all, "Take the A Train," for which Ellington himself was the arranger in this case. Recording the orchestra in its Buffalo home of Kleinhans Music Hall, Naxos achieves idiomatic sound. Recommended for Ellington lovers, especially those interested in the later part of his career.