“Suite Ellington” (PAO Records PAO11290) was originally done for Ellington’s 100th birthday in 1999. The work was brought back to life for a 2010 tour and the live recording is what has now been presented to us. An additional track, “The Single Pedal of a Rose” was recorded in late 2015.
With Neumeister (trombone) are some of his long-time collaborators and brilliant artists such as Billy Drewes (clarinet and alto saxophone), Jim Rotondi (trumpet and flugelhorn), the late Fritz Pauer (piano), Peter Herbert (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums). The album is dedicated to the memory of Fritz Pauer.
The album opens with one of my very favorite pieces ever performed by Ellington, Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” The arrangement is superb. The phenomenal Jeff Ballard opens with Peter Herbert’s bass to open the piece. Ballard turns Afro-Cuban rhythms lose while the horns do some sweet mix-ups on the melody. This is not a straightforward arrangement of the original, it is a worthy reinterpretation of the work.
Fritz Pauer also turns in fine piano work to work behind the splendid solos of Drewes and Neumeister. Drewes alto sax solo is a hot excursion but then comes Neumeister’s trombone solo. It is no wonder why he is synonymous with great Jazz trombone. Hearing the trombone—especially Neumeister’s trombone—take the solo on “Caravan” is a thing of beauty.
It is impossible, however, to get enough of Herbert and Ballard. Ballard can sniff out the groove from a mile away. Instead of a caravan, this is more like a band of mounted marauders—striking hard and fast and moving on to their next prey. With the live audience showing their appreciation, you can almost hear the stunned pause before the applause at the conclusion.
Ellington’s own “Come Sunday” is splendidly rendered by Fritz Pauer on piano. It is the longest track on the album but every second is pure joy in the listening. Billy Drewes joins on a sweet clarinet and the two duet together in wondrous understanding.
Neumeister brings his muted trombone into another duet with Herbert’s bass, as piano and clarinet take a seat. The two of them take a different—but no less amazing—path. Neumeister’s trombone-speak is stunning.
Jim Rotondi on trumpet and Jeff Ballard’s drums join with the full group for the final section. It is light-hearted and smart stuff. Beautiful.
“The Queen’s Suite” follows in six movements. Ellington and Strayhorn, Neumeister reminds us in the liner notes, wrote this suite for the Queen of England after meeting her in 1958. Ellington recorded it on one record and sent it to Queen Elizabeth. The work was not brought to the light of day again until 1976.
The first movement is “Sunset and the Mocking Bird.” With the piano trills and the soaring clarinet, a fine picture is painted. A cool deepening-nocturne develops and the horns imagine a warm dusk leading to darkness. It is a fantastic offering of beauty and simple delight.
“Lightning Bugs and Frogs” is a fun look at musical interpretation with throaty horns and quietly striking cymbals. It is happy and even playful against the discipline of the artists. The piece envisions an early evening festival of summer’s creatures in chorus. Neumeister paints the picture in streaming watercolor sounds that merge and blend together into something remarkable.
“Le Sucrier Velours” opens with the smooth bass and piano. Ballard joins in with the brushes before the addition of the horns. This is one of those numbers that sounds like it was crafted for just such an ensemble. The melded horns are superb and Fritz Pauer’s piano work if exceptional. "Velvet Sugar," indeed.
“The Single Pedal of a Rose” is the great spotlight for Neumeister’s solo trombone. The tonality is extraordinary and the phrasing is fascinating. The falling action is like the pedals that have dropped away, leaving the single pedal. Gorgeous work.
“Northern Lights” jump starts with the whole band in motion. The horns create an exemplary cohesion that allows so much space for the piano, bass and drums. The rhythm section is exciting and exhilarating.
“Apes and Peacocks” pick up quickly where “Northern Lights” leaves us. Ballard is again at his finest and Herbert works the bass over energetically. The percussive piano is cool as can be and then Ballard gets his solo. The guy is a beast.
The returning horns are exquisite. And Herbert turns in some of his most exciting work on the album here. In fact, this may be the single most exciting piece on the whole album which itself is full of excitement.
The album concludes with “DEPK” from the “Far East Suite.” Billy Drewes nails the clarinet and Herbert walks along with the bass. The horns light it up and Neumeister himself carries the melody with powerful finesse. Pauer creates some cool moments all around and Jim Rotondi gets in some blistering trumpet with Pauer sweeping behind. The audience whoops in appreciation.
With Fritz Pauer’s unexpected passing in 2012, the album—and this song, in particular—is a fine memorial.
Duke Ellington’s words are emblazoned on the interior panel of the album cover. They read: “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mind.” Neumeister brings that union to life once again in this album.
“Suite Ellington” is a work of extraordinary dedication and beauty. Ed Neumeister takes some of the great and renowned works of Ellington and Strayhorn and adds a work that went virtually unknown from 1958-1976. In the process, Neumeister and his colleagues bring Ellington and Strayhorn back around to us in ways that can only make us say “Thank You.”
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl