Review: Mark Lockheart’s Ellington in Anticipation
Venue: National Centre For Early Music, April 25
To some people, the idea of an evening of Duke Ellington covers might seem old hat. After all, he died 40 years ago and some of the many standards he wrote or co-wrote – Take The A-Train, Caravan, Black And Tan Fantasy, Mood Indigo, It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) to name but a handful – have arguably become over-exposed and have had the life sucked out of them by the attentions of cheese-mongers and lesser artists.
But the truth is that The Duke remains one of the true legends of jazz, a genuinely innovative composer and creative powerhouse whose work covered a vast amount of ground during a career spanning more than 50 years.
My copy of the jazz-lover’s bible, Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, lists around 170 CDs – just a fraction of his output – as being worthy of closer consideration.
Tenor saxophonist Mark Lockheart’s introduction to Ellington came early on in his childhood – his father used to blast Duke’s records at high volume on Sunday mornings in an attempt to get his son out of bed.
At the age of 12, he was taken by his dad to see the Ellington Band play in Eastbourne, and the youngster found himself hooked by the music and intrigued by the realisation that Ellington was able to write for each of the different musical personalities in the band.
The fascination endured, and last year Mark released the Ellington In Anticipation album to very positive reviews.
The album takes Ellington tunes – some of his best-known pieces among them – and weaves new arrangements and interpretations around the core of the originals.
He has now taken the project out on the road, and last night’s show at the National Centre For Early Music featured pretty much the same musicians that played on the album, original violin player Emma Smith being the only absentee.
Lockheart was part of the Loose Tubes ensemble and a member of Perfect Houseplants, but he is currently better known as one of two sax players in the wonderful Mercury-nominated Polar Bear, whose drummer (Seb Rochford) and bassist (Tom Herbert) formed the rhythm section for this new band.
Liam Noble (piano), Finn Peters (alto sax and flute), James Allsopp (clarinets) and Margrit Hasler (viola) were the other members.
The gig began a little slowly – it all felt rather loose, and it seemed to take the band a while to gel. But things started to come together with the third number – a beautifully reflective take on Come Sunday – and then everything gradually fell into place.
The radical re-interpretation of existing pieces is meat and drink to any decent jazz musician of course, and a couple of these Ellington pieces had been so thoroughly altered that they had left their origins behind and had eventually morphed into bona-fide original compositions for Lockheart.
That’s a long-established phenomenon in music, and it all felt cohesive and valid here.
The second half of the evening was more successful. Liam Noble’s excellent piano work came more to the fore, and there were plenty of fine solos from the other players.
I loved the blend of the three horns, especially when James Allsopp took to the bass clarinet.
At times, when they were all in flow, I got a fleeting sense of the sound worlds of people like Gil Evans and Weather Report, although the music covered such a wide range that no serious comparisons could be made with either – as is always the case with good jazz, you just have to let go and see where it takes you.
The sound helped, too – the band had chosen to play acoustically rather than go through a PA and the whole thing had a nicely organic feel to it.
They played most of the album, together with some unrecorded pieces such as their take on I’m Beginning To See The Light, before sending us home with an unadorned and mellow-sounding version of Indian Summer for their encore.
And The Duke? Well, he may not get around much any more but his music is still very much alive and I think that he would have approved of this deep and playful revision of it.