Masters & Baron Meet Blanton & Webster, Mark Masters Ensemble

Mark Masters (b. 1957) is an inventive and prolific composer and arranger from southern California. He organized his first ensemble in 1982. In 1990, Masters wrote the album PRIESTESS (Capri 74031) to feature Billy Harper and Jimmy Knepper. A subsequent recording with Knepper, THE JIMMY KNEPPER SONGBOOK (Focus 1001, 1993) featured arrangements by Masters of Knepper’s compositions.

The most recent recording by Masters, OUR METIER (Capri 74150, 2018), features Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake, Gary Foster, Mark Turner, Tim Hagans, Putter Smith, and Dave Woodley in a large ensemble setting. Michael Ullman calls OUR METIER “…an eclectic and beautifully accomplished big band recording that is made up of, for once, Masters’ originals.” DOWNBEAT magazine awarded the recording four stars in its December 2018 issue. FAREWELL WALTER DEWEY REDMAN (Capri 74089, 2008) features Masters’ “in and out” approach and re-casts Dewey Redman’s music while retaining its substance. The project features Oliver Lake, Tim Hagans, Dave Carpenter, and Peter Erskine. Other recordings include WISH ME WELL (Capri 74078, 2005), with Steve Kuhn, Gary Smulyan, Gary Foster, and Tim Hagans, EXPLORATION (Capri 74068, 2004) with Grachan Moncur III’s octet arranged by Masters, ONE DAY WITH LEE (Capri 74064, 2004) featuring alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, and THE CLIFFORD BROWN PROJECT (Capri 74059, 2003) featuring Jack Montrose, Gary Smulyan, Tim Hagans, Cecilia Coleman, and Joe La Barbera. In addition, in 2013 Capri released two recordings, ELLINGTON SAXOPHONE ENCOUNTERS (Capri 74118), and EVERYTHING YOU DID: THE MUSIC OF WALTER BECKER & DONALD FAGEN (Capri 74123). Released in 2017, BLUE SKYLIGHT (Capri 74143) features Masters’ innovative ensemble writing and unique approach to the music of Gerry Mulligan and Charles Mingus. In 2008, Masters wrote the arrangements for Gary Smulyan’s Reservoir Music (195) release THE JAZZ SOUL OF FRANKIE LAINE.

Masters’ 2005 recording PORGY AND BESS…REDEFINED! (Capri 74069) is a more harmonically adventurous approach to Gershwin’s classic folk opera than what has come before. John Kelman, writing for All About Jazz said “…Masters’ score is the real star here. From the opening fanfare he introduces two contrasting elements that, to a large part, define the approach to the whole suite-vibrant swing and some surprisingly free passages. He clearly proves that it’s possible to take a piece that has been approached from a variety of angles and still find a new way in.”

Since 1998, Masters has been president of The American Jazz Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the enrichment and enhancement of the appreciation of jazz. Under Masters’ direction, the AJI supports activities that educate and expose the public to jazz through live performance and an oral history project, as well as by supporting charitable endeavors that advance jazz music. One such endeavor is the AJI’s FIND YOUR OWN VOICE mentoring program that takes professional musicians to middle and upper school campuses to present clinics and master classes to student musicians. Masters is currently teaching beginning instrumental music in the Temecula, California schools and volunteering at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, teaching a beginning jazz ensemble.

From 1999 through 2006, Masters was a guest lecturer at Claremont McKenna College involved with the History of Jazz class (ID 109) overseeing an oral history project and writing for and producing a series of concerts that brought such notable artists to the college as Billy Harper, Billy Hart, Bennie Maupin, Rufus Reid, Sam Rivers, Andrew Cyrille, Mark Turner, Gary Foster, Lee Konitz, Jack Montrose, John La Porta, Tim Hagans, Gary Smulyan, Ray Drummond, Steve Kuhn, Peter Erskine, Joe La Barbera, Ted Brown, Grachan Moncur III, Henry Grimes, and Dewey Redman.

In DOWNBEAT magazine’s annual critics poll during the early 2000s, Masters was among those named in the RISING STAR: ARRANGER category.

Taken from material written by Ed Berger and Safford Chamberlain.

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.”



Episode #280

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