Jazz Goes to the Movies jumped the gun by a year on the centennial of Duke Ellington’s birth, but it did so in a most enterprising way by inviting the Louie Bellson Big Band to play some vividly reconstructed excerpts from three Ellington film scores.
At one time or another, the prolific Ellington dabbled in all kinds of media — often with the substantial participation of his Billy Strayhorn — though film made up a comparatively small portion of his output.
Yet his scores for “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), “Paris Blues” (1960) and “Assault on a Queen” (1966) fit the moods of their films and the temper of the times in which they were made — and they do not compromise Ellington’s big band idiom in the slightest.
His signature shadings and harmonies are there in profusion; “Anatomy” swerved from soft-focused subtlety to macho swagger, “Paris” offered the loosest jazz of the three, and “Assault” was full of color but not too much substance. This was fascinating yet minor Ellington, exquisitely turned autographs as opposed to profoundly expressed sentences.
Brief clips from the films were followed by the band playing suites from each, ranging between 11 and 18 minutes. The Bellson band was well-positioned to realize this music, for Bellson himself gave Ellington’s early ’50s band a depth charge of power as its drummer.
This edition of the Bellson band sounded more alive and vibrant than other Bellson ensembles have recently. One could play mental casting games with the sax section — tenor Rickey Woodard as Paul Gonsalves, alto Sal Lozano as Johnny Hodges (complete with Hodges’ trademark glides), baritone Jack Nimitz as Harry Carney, etc. — yet the ensemble thankfully did not try to overtly imitate the Ellington sound.
Trumpeter/jokester Jack Sheldon and pianist Ross Tompkins opened the night with an ingratiating set of elegant movie songs, though Sheldon’s most characterful playing of the night could be heard later in front of the Bellson band in “Paris Blues.”