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Review: Pacific Symphony salute to Duke Ellington fails to swing

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What do we do with the Duke? He was, most agree, the greatest jazz composer who ever lived. And more.

Duke Ellington was the soul of American music. David Schiff has just written a brilliantly illuminating book, "The Ellington Century," that places the Duke at the center of it all. Academic Ellington studies are extensive. Terry Teachout has an Ellington biography on the way.

And yet Ellington remains an outsider. A handful of his compositions are standards. But his large-scale symphonic works, his opera, his this and his that — he broke boundaries — are significant rarities. Recordings of orchestral repertory are few. Often, as with a new one by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, they are stodgy.

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Astonishingly few major American orchestras and major American conductors champion the Ellington cause in the U.S. Three months ago, the BBC Concert Orchestra played Elgar at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and then rushed home to London to play Ellington's tone poem "Harlem."

On Thursday night at Segerstrom, though, Carl St.Clair devoted his Pacific Symphony's 13th annual American Composer's Festival to Ellington. Devoted in name, anyway.

It was a disappointment. The orchestra chose a blandly eclectic Swiss saxophonist, Daniel Schnyder, as its ACF composer-in-residence. The Ellington numbers, for which the Duke Ellington Orchestra joined the Pacific Symphony, were conventional arrangements of mostly favorites. There was little indication of what Ellington meant to music, of the scope of his originality or the importance of his influence.

Ellington was a collector. He traveled the world and took it all in. He collected musicians too. He was a user and, some said, a thief, not always giving collaborators their due. But he had the great gift of empowerment. He illuminated and enlivened the individual voices of his band members. He put musical ideas that may not have been his own into motion. He made music happen in a way it had not happened before.

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Schnyder is also a collector in the Ellington spirit. He's an émigré in Ellington's Harlem, travels the world and picks things up. But he is also a blender, which Ellington was not. Ellington allowed for and celebrated differences. His art was universal because it was specific, an Afro-American art that incorporated all the musical world.

The program began with Schnyder's "Shourouk." Schnyder's trio — the composer on soprano sax, pianist Kenny Drew Jr. and trombonist David Taylor — lorded over timid principals of the Pacific Symphony for nine minutes of amiable musical tourism.

Schnyder's large orchestra arrangements of "In a Sentimental Mood" (featuring Schnyder as soloist) and Variations on "Purple Haze," turned Ellington into dewy haze and made Jimi Hendrix sound like Varèse on Vicodin. St.Clair conducted with swing, but the orchestra, especially swooping in strings in a fugal(!) section in "Purple Haze," stayed stiff.

Schnyder's bass trombone concerto, "subZERO," showed off Taylor's virtuosity and some of the instrument's incomparable buzz and surprising suavity. Mahler liked the bass trombone a lot and so did Nelson Riddle; there were reminiscences of both in the slow movement, the most effective of the three. Thanks to Taylor, the first movement cadenza wowed.

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For the evening's Ellington half, the Duke Ellington Orchestra was seated amid the Pacific Symphony. It stood out not only for its signature music stands and the snappy tuxedos of it members but also because it is, as is often still the case in jazz, all male. Arrangement of "Take the 'A' Train," "Caravan," "Satin Doll," "Creole Love Call" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" all featured the Ellingtonians and left the Pacific Symphony in uninspired backup.

There were only two novelties. James' hard-driving arrangement of "The Eight Veil" had its premiere. Maurice Peress' effective arrangement of Ellington's last piece, "Martin Luther King Jr." — from his "Three Black Kings" Suite — ended the program with genuine rapture, while also serving as a reminder of just how neglected are Ellington's many symphonic suites.

A good part of the problem is that we only think we don't know what to do with Duke. He was fearless. History is not. We've got the recordings, which Gary Giddins reminded us in The Times on Sunday are definitive. But they are snapshots of a musical life lived.

The Ellington Orchestra does good work as a musical ambassador (it's just back from a tour to Russia). But to fully follow Ellington means never to do the same thing twice, to always find new solutions, to take chances.

Ellington was a supreme collaborator, and that collaboration needs to continue with venturesome composers. Schnyder at least tried, but others — say, Terry Riley, whose version of "Caravan" follows an ecstatic Middle Eastern path — won't fail.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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