I spent a sublime time with the music of Duke Ellington last night (August 13), thanks to the salute to The Duke opening this year’s “Songbook Summer” program by Peter and Will Anderson, the superb twin brother musicians who are masters at playing variations of clarinet and sax instruments. They are also engaging showmen.
Their program this summer at the Peter Norton Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre, Broadway at 95th Street, includes Ellington (Aug. 13-15), followed by Louis Armstrong (August 21-23). There are two shows a night, 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
As in the format used in the past, not only do the Andersons perform, but a witty running commentary by Will surveys the lives and music of those honored, all illustrated on a screen at one side of the stage with drawings, quotes and film clips. With Ellington, for example, one gets The Duke being interviewed and commenting perceptively on his approach to music.
The clips also include clever use of Ellington’s appearance on the popular old “What’s My Line?” TV show, with Duke as the mystery guest as blindfolded Arlene Francis probes with her questions.
All of that was entertaining and illuminating, but the ultimate pleasure came down to being immersed in music Ellington composed, often in collaboration, as in the case of his long-time association with the brilliant Billy Strayhorn. Their first meeting at which Strayhorn dazzled Ellington and his musicians with his own interpretation of Ellington’s songs was amusingly described.
Listening to the Andersons playing in tandem or soloing with dazzling riffs is pure joy. They are joined by three excellent musicians—Jeb Patton on piano, who gets a chance to show his skill with some special soloing, as do Neal Miner on bass and Chuck Redd on drums and vibraphone. Molly Ryan provides the vocals with an excellent voice and charm as she smoothly interprets assorted lyrics, as for example, with “I Got It Bad (And that Ain’t Good).”
Some of the Ellington numbers offered are well known. What would such a program be without the opener, “Take the ‘A’ Train”? There were also, for example, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,”and “Drop Me Off in Harlem.” But lesser known numbers illustrated Ellington’s range.
I was fascinated listening to “Ad Lib on Nippon,” which incorporated Japanese-style melodies with American jazz-swing style, an example of how Ellington, even early in his career, was beginning to expand. I also enjoyed Ellington’s lesser known “The Mouche.”
Of course, one program, no matter how much Ellington is revealed and lauded, can’t begin to do justice to his musical legacy, but the Andersons and their colleagues on stage can sure get you to think more about him, and at the same time provide pure performing pleasure. I’m certain you can also count on added enjoyment with the upcoming Louis Armstrong program. At the Peter Norton Symphony Space Leonard Nimoy Theatre, Broadway and 95th Street. Phone: 212-864-5400. Reviewed August 14, 2019.