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Duke of Groove

[whitespace] Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Carol Friedman

Rhythm Kings: The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis captures the legacy of Duke Ellington on Saturday at the SC Civic.

A musical celebration of the American legacy of Duke Ellington

By Karen Reardanz

FRANCE HAS HIGH FASHION and Egypt millennia-old civilizations, but America has made its own contribution to cultural consciousness with the music of jazz. Over the course of the 20th century, we've witnessed the birth and growth of this premier musical phenomenon, and no artist in those past 100 years has contributed as greatly to this melodic canon as Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. His contributions to the development of ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and big band were profound. Such extensive symphonic works as Black, Brown and Beige and songs like "Satin Doll" extended the boundaries of jazz, adding in blues, a European classical sound and his musical interpretation of the mythic lore of trains.

It seems only fitting then that the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO), under the direction of famed trumpet player, composer and bandleader Wynton Marsalis, should bring "America in Rhythm and Tune: The Ellington Centennial" to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Saturday. The orchestra will perform this celebration of not only the life and work of the Duke but also the illustrious heritage of this integral part of American culture on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the master composer's birth.

FORMED in 1988 as the house band for the organization Jazz at Lincoln Center, the LCJO performs historic compositions and newly commissioned works. Famed for its concerts with the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet, the orchestra's most skillful knowledge lies in the breadth of Ellington. Its annual presentation of Ellington's music at Lincoln Center is considered a cultural must.

For "America in Rhythm and Tune," Wynton Marsalis and the orchestra perform Ellington suites, songs and musical portraits born from the pianist's love of the blues and trains. Past performances have garnered rave reviews by the best of literary publications, evoking such passionate terms as "ferocious," "stimulating" and "blistering."

Comprised of a veritable legion of first-rate musicians, the LCJO is fronted by Wynton Marsalis, deemed one of contemporary music's finest composers. Marsalis draws parallels to Duke Ellington in many ways (much to the chagrin of many jazz purists, who believe Marsalis is but a benign version of jazz greats). Marsalis' 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic Blood on the Fields was inspired by Ellington's 1934 historical masterpiece, Black, Beige and Brown, and many critics believe that Marsalis possesses the creativity and compositional savvy to earn himself a retrospective one day.

But passing the jazz torch to the next generation is Jazz at Lincoln Center's most pressing charge, and through programs like the Essentially Ellington high school jazz band competition, Jazz for Young People concerts and performances like "America in Rhythm and Tune," jazz proponents aim to keep the musical style in the forefront of American cultural consciousness.

But it is Duke Ellington himself that "America in Rhythm and Tune" is about, and Saturday's concert showcases the essence of the legendary composer. His nuanced compositions, his gift for harmony and rhythm and his innate ability to combine romance with the emotional and psychological complexities of the blues make for a sound that at its pinnacle captured the American soul--and continues to today.

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performs Saturday, March 13 (8pm), at the SC Civic Auditorium, 307 Center St., SC. The show is sold out.

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From the March 10-17, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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