Interest in Duke Ellington (1899-1974) is something that is hardly going to go out of fashion. Whether it’s a repertory band such as the Echoes of Ellington Orchestra dedicated to the Washingtonian, or such suitably inspired composer-pianists as the Nu Cilvilisation Orchestra’s Peter Edwards reviving ‘The Queen’s Suite’, or even musicians casually playing a tune from the great man’s work at a low-key club date any night of the week whether in Fargo or Folkestone, you’ll guarantee the Ellington repertoire will bring people together, hardcore jazz fans familiar with his work, “reminiscing in tempo”, and newcomers alike.
But how can a new generation who have come to jazz in the last decade, let’s call it the Polar Bear generation, after the band that from 2004 anticipated Brit-jazz with experimental albums such as Held on the Tips of Fingers. How do they take to Ellington? Well, the answer may well be found in significant upcoming album Ellington in Anticipation, the work of Mark Lockheart a pillar of Polar Bear, joined by the band’s drummer Seb Rochford, also known for his work with Sons of Kemet these days, and Polar Bear bassist Tom Herbert, who also performs with indie avatars The Invisible.
First roadtested by students of Trinity Laban, where Lockheart also teaches, the recording session came together over two days in May at the Livingston studio in north London.The EiA band is a septet with Lockheart, Rochford, and Herbert and four hip young gunslingers in Spatial AKA alto saxman Finn Peters, Golden Age of Steam’s James Allsopp on clarinet, Basquiat Strings violinist Emma Smith, and pianist Liam Noble, a mainstay of singer Christine Tobin’s Sailing to Byzantium band.
In Lockheart’s world view Ellington has not been preserved in aspic, and the Hampshire-born habitually leather-jacketed 51-year-old has managed to mingle his unfussy contemporary stylings with the core Ellington sound through this septet opening the album uncontroversially with ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it ain’t got that swing)’. ‘My Caravan’, Lockheart’s complex variant on ‘Caravan’ has a fascinatingly intricate structure that unfolds almost as a big introduction for ‘Come Sunday’ one of Ellington’s most beautiful pieces allowing Finn Peters’ flute to provide sufficient space to make the arrangement seem that more fresh, even if it’s a familiar piece and one that’s regularly reprised by bands steeped in Ellingtonia these days however unselfconsciously or not.
Lockheart’s own pieces ‘Jungle Lady’, ‘Uptown’, and ‘Beautiful Man’ sit comfortably with ‘Take the A Train’, ‘Azure’, ‘Creole Love Call’, ‘Mood Indigo’ and Victor Herbert’s ‘Indian Summer’, Lockheart’s Gil Evans-like arrangement of that likeable old song Al Dubin later wrote words to is very different to Ellington’s alto-sax feature for Russell Procope, although Noble’s channelling of Ellington’s piano style is uncanny in its empathy.
Punctuated by the unimpeachable Rochfordian rhythm imperative, and leavened jauntily by Emma Smith in the Ray Nance role on the most Polar Bear-like track, Lockheart’s ‘Uptown’, this album, whether aimed at the deeply frosted ursine generation or the nostalgia-loving jazz fan in their sixties or seventies (or both), is cleverly balanced.
In Deep, Lockheart’s last major statement as a composer and bandleader, made a big impact in 2010, and with the massive hinterland of Ellingtonia behind this album expertly availed of, and the sheer quality of the musicianship and life force of this record, chances are this will too.
Lockheart recalls in a note included in the liner tray of the Subtone Records release how his fascination with Ellington began. It was a de facto wake-up call: “I was first introduced to Ellington’s music,” he writes, “by my father, who would play Duke’s records very loudly on Sunday mornings to get me out of bed. In 1973 when I was 12 years old he took me to see the Ellington band at Eastbourne, an experience that further ‘hooked’ me on Ellington’s music and made me realise that he wrote for each of the different musical personalities in the band.” And in his very different way Lockheart has done just that, as audiences will very well discover for themselves as the Ellington in Anticipation band tours. Dates so far confirmed are: Watermill, Dorking (28 February); Turner Sims, Southampton (5 March); Y Theatre, Leicester (6 March); Seven Arts, Leeds (7 March); Crucible Sheffield (8 March); Hidden Rooms, Cambridge (22 March); and Kings Place, London (23 March).
The Ellington in Anticipation band pictured top. Tom Herbert (above, left), Seb Rochford, Emma Smith, Finn Peters, Mark Lockheart, Liam Noble, and James Allsopp. Ellington in Anticipation is released on 18 February, cover above