By LOU FANCHER
Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra: The Legacy of Duke Ellington: 50 Years of Swing!
Friday, May 2, 2014
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Better than: It's Ellington. What could be better than that?
San Francisco bassist and band leader Marcus Shelby's tribute to the music of Duke Ellington in Friday's Cal Performances presentation in Berkeley was all about the ABC's of swing.
Ambitious, amiable, authentic and atmospheric; bold, bluesy, barefoot (we'll get to that), and Bard-inspired (and that too); the cool, caroling, crooning, cartwheeling conversation between guest artists and Shelby's 16-piece orchestra added up to much more than alphabet soup.
Shelby's band has been together for 15 years. Dripping with talent, the group proved that jazz is at its best when the parts are clear to the ear, but the soul feels the whole.
If the first set -- selections from the Duke's five decades of music making -- suffered from inconsistent surges of momentum, it also offered repeated thrills and swift, spectacular ascents.
Rolling out Ellington's fine tunes like mighty steel boilerplates, Shelby's band flashed through the opening "Perdido" before hitting "Boy Meets Horn." Trumpeter Joel Behrman's saucy serve-up was only the first of his several appearances; each time was a delight-filled package of surprises.
Jazz standards, like "Creole Love Call," rendered another throughout-the-evening thrill: perfectly balanced interplay between band members. When trombone player Mitch Butler and pianist Joe Warner teamed up, it wasn't simply two musicians playing together: it was two musicians listening -- really hearing -- and reacting to each other. There's chemistry involved in jazz's call and response, or maybe "magic" is a more accurate label.
Regardless, a spell was cast when vocalist Faye Carol entered. Dressed in red -- like a blood-drenched dagger, with nails to match -- Carol was hotter than Hades at high noon. Stripping off her silver-white shoes (told you we'd get to the barefoot part), she got down to business. Especially in "In My Solitude," which also put the spotlight on clarinetist Patrick Wolff, a spectacular musician. Carol sheds notes like tears -- or groans them like a heart, slowly ripping. Scat-singing in later selections, or roaring like heartbreak's cure, her adept improvisational skills, and a certain understanding of rhythm she shares with Shelby, were obvious.
Violinist Matthew Szemela showed dynamic range: turning out sound as sexy as a saxophone's on his fiddle in "Moon Mist," and adding essential contrast to the band's horns in other works. And there's surely a special place on earth and waiting in heaven for guest saxophone player Jules Broussard. He had the least stage time, but managed to play two instruments at once (his alto and tenor saxophones) and deliver mind-bending solos in under 30 seconds. One can't predict where a musical line will travel with Broussard, but from the applause, it was clear the audience appreciated every journey.
After intermission, Such Sweet Thunder, a 12-suite work inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare and composed by Ellington with his longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, featured actors from California Shakespeare Company. Unfortunately, the collaboration was more curious than creative -- despite the novelty of actors appearing in the aisles or aloft, in balconies, to recite sonnets and excerpts from the Bard's plays. Even if a person knew "Sweet Thunder" was meant to evoke the essence of Shakespeare's characters and themes of tragic love and loss, and not be literal or parallel accompaniment, the pairing overemphasized connection.
But in the end, this was all about jazz, not Romeo and Juliet. The beauty of 400-plus-year-old words, expressed in Shelby's deeply elegant, fine-tuned and gorgeously-balanced band served similar purpose. Sometimes, the alphabet is art.
The band rules: Although a lot of deserved attention goes to guests artists, a band that doesn't rock together -- or, in this case, swing -- would be a total, dissonant downer. Shelby has done with this orchestra what Ellington did with his: blaze a trail with incendiary performers who command the spotlight, or give it up to serve the greater good. Kudos to the band beyond all others.
Let the man talk: Shelby didn't engage in his usual banter and backstory-sharing with the audience. Whether his staying mostly mute was due to the size of the 750-seat house, or the size of the project, it was too bad. The guy's a walking Google search dream: a smattering of Ellington, jazz and Shakespearean history would have been the sweetest touch on the night's tribute.