Those classic old tunes that put a swing in Sir Simon's kinky afro

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The Independent Culture

Sir Simon Rattle must be the only man in Harlem to still wear an afro. In a church hall on 121st Street in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks from the historic thoroughfare of Amsterdam Avenue, the celebrated conductor is bouncing his baton to the beats of Duke Ellington's "Take the A-Train". As the swinging music fills the hall, and the spirit of the moment takes him, Rattle's trademark grey cumulo-nimbus of a hair-do bounces along with the rhythm too. Although this is only a rehearsal for the following night's concert at Carnegie Hall, both Rattle and the musicians he is leading - the 82 members of the Orchestra of St Luke's, plus a posse of nine eminent jazz soloists - appear quite transported by the experience. Clearly, this is no ordinary gig.

Sir Simon Rattle must be the only man in Harlem to still wear an afro. In a church hall on 121st Street in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks from the historic thoroughfare of Amsterdam Avenue, the celebrated conductor is bouncing his baton to the beats of Duke Ellington's "Take the A-Train". As the swinging music fills the hall, and the spirit of the moment takes him, Rattle's trademark grey cumulo-nimbus of a hair-do bounces along with the rhythm too. Although this is only a rehearsal for the following night's concert at Carnegie Hall, both Rattle and the musicians he is leading - the 82 members of the Orchestra of St Luke's, plus a posse of nine eminent jazz soloists - appear quite transported by the experience. Clearly, this is no ordinary gig.

As the musicians continue their work, you can't help noticing the slight, elegant, figure of a grey-haired old man dressed in a natty, earth-toned, collarless suit, with a string of conch-shell jewellery around his neck. The old man looks nervously about him as he passes through the ranks of musicians in search of a suitable resting place, eventually taking up a position next to the veteran jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, who is confined to a wheelchair. It's Luther Henderson, the orchestrator of the music Sir Simon and the band are rehearsing for the next night's concert of "Classic Ellington"; a New York showcase to launch the release of the new EMI album of the same name. A pianist and musical director, as well as a composer and arranger on Broadway for more than five decades, Henderson is not just the arranger here; he's probably the reason why the project is happening in the first place. As the uncle of Sir Simon's American screenwriter wife, Candace Allen, Henderson is now part of the Rattle clan.

"This is family", Sir Simon said immediately after the rehearsal, when he, Henderson, and one of the jazz stars, saxophonist Joe Lovano, gathered for a press conference in an adjoining room. Rattle's tone revealed that he knew the remark sounded like a line from The Sopranos, but also that this shouldn't detract from the seriousness of the relationship.

"My father started off as a jazz musician but he was advised by Joe Loss, the bandleader: 'Look, young Dennis, jazz is difficult for a white British musician'", Rattle told us. "He took me to see Duke Ellington in Liverpool for the first time when I was aged seven -at five I was too young to go and see Lena Horne (this with a nod to Luther Henderson, who would have been accompanying Horne on the gig), and I grew up wanting to be a jazz drummer. My dad was a little depressed when I crossed over to what he saw as the other side." Rattle is most persuasive, however, when he talks about the business of an orchestra playing jazz, and how this relates to other parts of the repertoire, especially the equally pulse-led music of the baroque era. "Just as we expect the orchestra to play Rameau, we also expect them to play Ellington", he says. "It all belongs in the same box, and the labels really don't help. When it's music with a pulse, once you find that pulse, it carries an incredibly heavy weight, and when you've got that gait right, everything follows. Like baroque music, you play the dissonance more than the resolution. The only other composer who writes like Ellington is Rameau."

When it came, the Carnegie Hall concert last Thursday night was, perhaps predictably, a gala occasion in which the emotions of the audience - which included a number of old Ellingtonians - were played like a particularly responsive violin. At the end, standing ovations accompanied a distribution of bouquets so extravagant that you half-expected to get one yourself. Sir Simon pointed the audience in the direction of Uncle Luther, looking shy up high in a box and everyone went wild. Now all he has to do is make the Berlin Phil swing.

PJ

'Classic Ellington' is available now on EMI Classics

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