Arranger/Bandleader Mark Masters enlists Duke Ellington Orchestra veteran Art Baron to reimagine the music of the iconic bandleader’s most revered era
Masters & Baron Meet Blanton & Webster, due out June 18, 2021 via Capri Records, transforms Ellington classics through a contemporary lens with Masters’ virtuosic ensemble and special guest trumpeter Tim Hagans
“Mark Masters is an accomplished arranger who comes up with hip, unusual ideas for jazz concerts and recordings.” – Thomas Conrad, JazzTimes
“Masters paints complex, intricate, detailed jazz landscapes, and he has always invited some of the most adventurous and innovative players into his ensemble.”
– Dan McClenaghan, All About Jazz
Duke Ellington was one of the most iconic and influential composers in the history of jazz, crafting indelible music that continues to be revered and revived to this day. Arguably the pinnacle of his artistry occurred between 1940 and 1942, when his revered Orchestra featured the groundbreaking bassist Jimmie Blanton and the tenor saxophone master Ben Webster. For a genius composer who famously wrote for musicians rather than instruments, this era of the Duke Ellington Orchestra – now known as the Blanton-Webster Band – proved especially inspirational to both Ellington and his frequent collaborator, composer Billy Strayhorn.
That inspiration is carried forward by the brilliant arranger and bandleader Mark Masters, who revisits the music of the Blanton-Webster Band on his latest album, reimagining these classic compositions with his own unique interpretation. In addition to his own virtuosic Mark Masters Ensemble, the project spotlights the legendary Art Baron, the last trombonist hired by Ellington himself in 1973. Baron occupied the plunger trombone chair, a standout element of the Ellington Orchestra, for the final year of the bandleader’s life, and continued with the band under the baton of the founder’s son, Mercer Ellington.
Masters & Baron Meet Blanton & Webster, due out June 18, 2021 via Capri Records, is a generation-spanning summit meeting that offers a fresh perspective on some of jazz’s greatest compositions. In contrast to Baron’s direct link to Ellington’s storied past, special guest Tim Hagans adds a decidedly contemporary twist with his bold, modernist approach to the trumpet.
The Mark Masters Ensemble brings together a supremely gifted group of musicians to conjure Masters’ distinctive palette: four saxophones (Kirsten Edkins and Jerry Pinter splitting Webster’s tenor duties along with Danny House on alto and clarinet and Adam Schroeder on baritone); three trumpets in addition to Hagans (Scott Englebright, Les Lovitt and Ron Stout); trombonists Les Benedict and Dave Woodley alongside Baron; bassist Bruce Lett filling Blanton’s role; and drummer Mark Ferber.
“All eras of Ellington interest me,” Masters says. “But the Blanton-Webster Band represents a really remarkable period of time. Jimmie Blanton is credited with revolutionizing the role of the bass in the jazz orchestra, making it a melodic contributor instead of just keeping time and laying out basic harmony. And Ben Webster was quite simply a giant. It just so happened that the two of them were in the band at the same time, and then you add all the great Ellington and Strayhorn compositions to that.”
The project’s inception can be traced back to 2013, when Masters invited Baron to perform at an Ellington Brass Encounters concert in Southern California. “Art is one of a kind as a player and as a person,” Masters explains. “He’s a great student of the music and knows all the history, plus he’s an original with a unique sound. It was a joy to be able to craft my writing specifically for him and that plunger mute specialty.”
Hagans’ inventive sound introduces a singular element all its own to several pieces, including a stunning muted solo on Masters’ deconstructed “Take the ‘A’ Train.” As Masters describes, “Tim is another one of a kind. I’ve introduced him at concerts as ‘an improviser who has created his own language,’ and there aren’t many people that do that. His language is so unique, and I thought it would be interesting to include an element that you wouldn’t normally associate with Ellington.”
The material on Masters & Baron Meet Blanton & Webster include some of the most familiar and oft-revisited titles in the Ellington-Strayhorn canon, including “Ko-Ko,” “In a Mellotone,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” “I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” and of course, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” among others. Discovering a new angle on such well-worn repertoire might prove daunting to most arrangers; but for Masters, who specializes in recomposing music – taking the composition as raw material to be reworked to sometimes unrecognizable degrees – the familiarity proved freeing. In many cases his transformations required only the most tenuous resemblance to the originals in order to evoke their spirit while becoming an entirely new piece of music.
“All of the tunes are so well known that there would be no point in just going ahead and doing another arrangement of, say, ‘Take the ‘A’ Train,” he says. “I feel like I left enough that people can hear the tunes, but recomposed them enough to make them something of my own and something worth recording again. These classic Ellington compositions have been recorded countless times over the last 25 years, and some people don’t want to touch them because they are such classics. But I always want to use the source material to do something dramatically different.”