Saturday, December 12, 2015

Jazz Orchestra: Director's Notes

Notes by Dan Aldag

The Jazz Orchestra concert celebrates the centennial of Billy Strayhorn, who was born on Nov. 29th, 1915. Strayhorn is best known as the composer of the song "Lush Life" and "Take The 'A' Train", the Duke Ellington Orchestra's theme song, but Strayhorn composed or arranged a wealth of material for the Ellington band from 1939 until his death in 1967.

 The Ellington/Strayhorn relationship was an extraordinarily complex one. Ellington is almost universally recognized as the greatest jazz composer of all time, and he also employed a composer who was perhaps his equal for over half of his career.

Strayhorn didn't receive nearly the acclaim and fame that Ellington did, partly because it was Ellington's name in lights, partly because Ellington was given credit for some of Strayhorn's work, but also because the two men, as close as they were, had very different temperaments.

 Ellington was a charming, charismatic showman who basked in the public's attention. Strayhorn was a shy, quiet man who was happy to remain in the shadows, in part because staying out of the public eye allowed him to live openly as a gay man at a time when most gay men were deeply closeted.

 We're playing everything exactly as Strayhorn wrote it. Parts were either copied from the original Ellington band parts or painstakingly transcribed from Ellington recordings.

We'll play "Take The 'A' Train" and "Lush Life", of course, with the latter in an arrangement that Strayhorn may have written for the Ellington band the night he first met Ellington. The Ellington band never recorded it, though. It has been recorded recently as an instrumental, but I believe our performance will be the first done with a vocalist (Olivia Bright) singing Strayhorn's remarkable lyrics.

 We'll do one other vocal, with our usual guitarist, Kenneth Bozanich, putting down his instrument to sing "Flamingo" in the 1940 arrangement that first brought Strayhorn attention.

 We're performing two rare works that were written for the Ellington band but never recorded by them. "Tonk" is basically a short piano concerto Strayhorn designed to showcase Ellington's instrumental abilities. Our pianist, Max Marlowe, will take the soloist's role. "Pentonsilic", which dates to 1941, is a stunning 12-minute work that demonstrated that even at the start of his career, Strayhorn had a complete mastery of form and development.

 "Chelsea Bridge" is a lovely 3-minute tone poem inspired by a Whistler painting. "Midriff" is a zesty swinger with a very well-designed architecture underlying it.

In the Fifties and Sixties, Ellington and Strayhorn wrote a number of suites, album-length collections of short pieces unified around a single idea. We're playing Strayhorn pieces from two of those suites. "Half the Fun" comes from the Shakespeare-inspired Such Sweet Thunder, and "Isfahan" is part of the Far East Suite. The latter features the band's lead alto saxophonist, Kyle McInnis.

 Ellington and Strayhorn also collaborated on an arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and we'll perform the "Overture" from that.

 The concert will include the last two pieces Strayhorn composed for the Ellington band, "The Intimacy of the Blues" and "Blood Count". "Intimacy..." is a small-group tune that will spotlight the band's lead horn players, McInnis, Craig Hull on trombone, and Andrew Henderson on trumpet. "Blood Count", composed while Strayhorn was in the final stages of the cancer that killed him, is a heart-wrenching, albeit mostly subdued, raging against the dying of the light that will once again feature McInnis.

The concert will end on a life-affirming note, however, with the joyous "Raincheck", first recorded by the Ellington band in 1941, and re-recorded by them on Strayhorn tribute album they recorded shortly after the composer's death, ...And His Mother Called Him Bill.--Dan Aldag

Additional links:
official Billy Strayhorn website
Strayhorn bio at Black
and at Pittsburgh History

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