Jazz/classical: Composers bow down to the Duke



THE LONDON Sinfonietta is rarely the same band twice, but last Saturday they were virtually unrecognisable from the photogenic bunch of young virtuosos shown in the publicity material. For "Ellington Now", a tribute to the Duke, they drafted in swaths of jazzers to reinvent the ensemble as a well-drilled big band. Could a future Sinfonietta incorporate turntablists, theraminists and rappers? This time the line-up, which included French horns and oboe, was similar to the one that re-created the Fifties Gil Evans/ Mikes Davis collaborations to great acclaim three years ago.

The seven tribute pieces struck a high standard of writing and performance, responding more to the dark richness of Ellington's harmony and timbre than to his melodies songs or swing. Poul Ruders' "Sophisticated-Caravan- Solitude" was five minutes of criss-crossing, even-quaver counterpoint and meaty orchestration sampling some of Ellington's chords and motifs as raw material for the composer's transformations. Richard Rodney Bennett's "Rondel", an equally virtuosic piece of orchestration, became a busy jazz waltz that recalled his score for Darling, and British big bands of the pre-Westbrook/ Gibbs era and the kind of demanding piece that competitive American college bands love to get their fingers round.

In "When Harry Met Addie" Gavin Bryars used wordless, Adelaide Hall-style vocals (Cristina Zavalloni) to echo and reinvent the tune and glassy ambience of Ellington's epochal "Creole Love Call". After a while Ray Warleigh burst from the drifting ensemble to play a fine alto sax solo. Nikki Iles's "A Gentle Prayer" was a lush, slowly unfolding piece wrapped around Stan Suzmann's tenor saxophone improvisation like a jewelled velvet cloak. The drummer Paul Clarvis, also coaxing textures from a small collection of percussion toys, was as brilliant as usual.

With the abrasive "Passeggiata in Tram in America e Ritorno" by Louis Andriessen we were back in hardcore Sinfonietta territory, with nary a blue note in earshot. Power chords from a stripped-down ensemble were pitted against scrabbling "contemporary" writing for James Woodrow (electric guitar) and Clio Gould (electric violin) and Zavalloni - it was a hoot. I didn't grasp the Duke connection in that one, but Simon Bainbridge's "Towards the Bridge" tipped a hat to "Chelsea Bridge" by Ellington's close musical associate Billy Strayhorn. The sax section and Clarvis returned for this still, translucent piece, which broke into characteristically Ducal sentimentality near the close and featured the superb Melinda Maxwell on cor anglais. John Warren's new arrangement "Fleur Carnivore" (Carla Bley) included trademark Bley figures behind Warleigh's featured alto, the trumpeters Guy Barker and Henry Lowther and some impressive trombone ensemble work.

"Ellington Now" was an enjoyable, successful concert, yet it provoked many questions about heavyweight institutional support for "non-classical" composers skilled at writing for large ensembles. For composers such as Bley, Iles, Steve Berry, Eddie Parker, Karen Wimhurst, Orlando Gough and Fayyaz Virji there is no jazz/ creative music equivalent to the LSO, the RPO - or the Sinfonietta for that matter. Something to think about as we celebrate the Duke's centenary.