The Buenos Aires-born pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim has assembled a formidable array of talent for this elaborate bow to the art of Duke Ellington. Arranger Cliff Colnot has deftly adapted classic Ellington/Strayhorn big-band arrangements for a "chamber jazz" group half the size of Ellington's peerless aggregation, employing sumptuous new voicings and some superb musicianship by lesser-known players like alto saxophonist Larry Combs, trumpeters John Hagstrom and Amir El Saffer and percussionist Kyle Woodring. On two tunes ("Caravan" and "Zweet Zurzday"), he's enlisted the wide-ranging clarinetist Don Byron, whose métiers include klezmer music as well as forward-looking jazz, and on three others ("Sophisticated Lady," "Azure" and "Chelsea Bridge"), Denver native Dianne Reeves sings timeless lyrics in a voice as pure and penetrating as old bourbon.
On the occasion of Ellington's centennial, Barenboim's tribute is as welcome as any, and the digital recordings, made in Chicago and Paris, are technically first-rate. Still, this heartfelt effort will have many listeners yearning for, well, a different piano player. Barenboim's work as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden may be exemplary, but the strict constructionism with which he essays Ellington here is another demonstration of the insoluble problems classical musicians often encounter when playing jazz. In a nutshell, Barenboim doesn't swing. There's passion in his tone, but his phrasing is woefully flat and vertical. Bereft of useful syncopation and the inner sense of Ellington's world, he comes off as a scarecrow among dancers.
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Barenboim's "Satin Doll" sounds like she's been starched, and his "A Train" remains so stolidly on track that you pray for a fast curve or two. Alas, the sinuous Combs and bassist Brad Opland, among others, do what they can, but in the end there's no overcoming the metronomic Barenboim piano. In a year when every musician from Wynton Marsalis to the queens of country have acknowledged their debts to the Duke, open-minded listeners welcome variety. But it's difficult to recommend the Barenboim valentine without a few cautions.