December 7, 2019

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It must mean a thing when it's got that swing, and this concert had that

Duke Ellington

CP

Duke Ellington

DUKE Ellington's admonition in the tune It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing still carries weight four decades after the great bandleader's death.

You can rearrange his music, but you can't lose the essential swing that is the honey that attracts musicians and fans alike to the Ellington songbook.

And there is nothing quite like a big band navigating those charts, many that have been around since the 1930s or '40s.

The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra swung like mad Sunday afternoon, in the second of three weekend concerts, through Ellington staples such as I'm Beginning to See the Light, Things Ain't What They Used to Be, Caravan and, of course, It Don't Mean a Thing.

But it was the rarely performed symphonic piece, Black, Brown and Beige, that highlighted the sophistication of Ellington's writing and the performance chops of the WJO and guest conductor Fred Stride and singer Hei�a Forsyth.

Forsyth's bold voice, perfectly suited to the popular swing numbers and The Blues, from the suite, was a hit. She is able to convey the joy in the blues and do it fronting a powerful jazz orchestra.

Forsyth nailed the world-weariness of the lyrics of songs such as I'm Beginning to See the Light, drew on a big bluesy sound for I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues, and proved how valid, and valued It Don't Mean a Thing remains.

It was big afternoon for baritone saxophonist Ken Gold, whose deep-throated horn is a staple of big bands and the Ellington oeuvre.

And trombonist Brad Shigeta was in his glory as a soloist throughout the concerts. He lived the Ellington songbook for a number of years as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra under Mercer Ellington.

Stride, a Vancouver musician, composer, conductor and historian put together the Black, Brown and Beige score from existing charts and by transcribing other sections. Ellington only performed the whole score a handful of times after its January 1943 debut at Carnegie Hall.

The music was panned by jazz reviewers who thought Ellington was stepping outside his forté and by classical reviewers who sniffed a dance bandleader shouldn't be undertaking such as highbrow project.

Stride also used half a dozen arrangements of Ellington tunes by Canadian musicians, including a delightfully quirky version of Caravan by WJO trombonist Jeff Presslaff, and a great rendition of Things Ain't What They Used to Be by the late big-band leader Rob McConnell.

Those arrangements, and Ellington's skill, brought out the best in an already great band.

chris.smith@freepress.mb.ca

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