Shortly before the World Saxophone Quartet recorded their classic 'Plays Duke Ellington' date for Nonesuch Records in April of 1986, I spoke with Hamiet Bluiett at the Greenwich Village club where they were working on the material. Bluiett seemed less than enthused about the upcoming session.
"I don't know why we've got to make this ******* record, We ARE the Ellington reed section! We should be doing our own stuff."
Comprised of four of the most distinctive and respected leaders of the '80s (Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill on altos, David Murray on tenor and Bluiett on baritone), I understood his point, but was perplexed at his reluctance to take what would be a unique look at some of Duke's best known works. After the recording session his irritation was replaced with unbridled enthusiasm, and by the session cassette he played for me I could see why. Not only is it an extraordinary recording, but it established them as one of the top chamber ensembles in Jazz, won them top Jazz group honors in the 1987 'Playboy' Reader's Poll and sold over 50,000 copies in the first year of its release, with nearly 100,000 sold as of this date.
Listening to this CD again some 15 years later, this timeless music is as exciting and enjoyable as ever, remaining one of the most unusual and extraordinary interpretations of the peerless Ellington (and his "alter-ego" Billy Strayhorn) that has ever been done.
As usual with the WSQ, the most interesting pieces were arranged by the late, great Hemphill, offering a gorgeous version of 'Lush Life' along with an arrangement of 'Take the 'A' Train' that never really states the theme, but wonderfully interprets the immensely popular Ellington Orchestra theme song. Julius, who died in 1995 of complications from diabetes, was one of the finest and most important Jazz composers of the late 20th Century and his approach to these two Strayhorn classics perfectly display his originality and rich compositional skills.
Lake arranged Duke's 'In a Sentimental Mood' (taking a fine solo as well) and 'I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart' with the singularly edgy and angular approach that has made him a similarly respected composer. Oliver also solos beautifully on Murray's lovely arrangement of 'Prelude to a Kiss,' while Murray takes one of his typically muscular solos on Bluiett's evocative version of 'Come Sunday.' Bluiett also offers 'Sophisticated Lady,' taking a solo that explores the big horn's entire range and then some, concluding with some high notes that would seem to be impossible to play on a baritone.
While I would have liked to hear the WSQ take on some of Duke's slightly less established classics like 'Harlem Air Shaft,' 'Black and Tan Fantasy,' 'Creole Love Call' and 'The Mooche,' it's a minor quibble. These interpretations of some of the most popular Ellington/Strayhorn tunes are unlike any others you may have heard or are likely to hear.
As usual with Nonesuch, the production quality is excellent, beautifully recorded by Grammy-winning audio engineer Paul Goodman, who took the same lovingly attentive approach to the WSQ as he did with his renowned Vladimir Horowitz recordings.
If you have room in your collection for only one of the World Saxophone Quartet's many great recordings, make it this one.