Ellington: Two Tributes

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For more than 80 years Duke Ellington’s music has been tantalizing us, and these two CDs are proof of that. Ellington’s Saxophone Encounters, by the Mark Masters Ensemble, features baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan with four other reed players plus rhythm on 12 tunes written by various Ellington reed-section members. Thus we get Smulyan showcased on fellow baritone saxist Harry Carney’s magnificent “We’re in Love Again,” Gene Cipriano’s alto solo on Johnny Hodges’ lovely “Peaches” (featuring Don Shelton’s clarinet), and tenorman Pete Christlieb’s marvelous interpretation of Ben Webster’s ballad “Love’s Away.” This is a great set of tunes and versions of them using Masters’ arrangements. A Single Petal of a Rose presents the Duke Ellington Legacy, a nine-person ensemble plus singer Nancy Reed. The group’s sparkplug is tenor person Virginia Mayhew, who founded the group in 2003 with Ellington’s grandson, guitarist Edward Kennedy Ellington II. Seasoned veterans Norman Simmons (piano) and Houston Person (tenor sax) lend their authority to the proceedings. Standout selections are Simmons’ solo renditions of the title track, “Lotus Blossom,” and “After Hours,” while trombonist Noah Bless really shines on “Blood Count” and Person brightens up a too bouncy “In a Mellow Tone.”