Title: Black, Brown, and Beige
Artist: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Label: Blue Engine
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra captures and invokes the spirit of Duke Ellington with their release of Ellington’s masterwork, Black, Brown and Beige. The album is a live recording from a performance at the Rose Theater in 2018 with special guests Brianna Thomas (voice) and Eli Bishop (violin). Originally composed for the first of Ellington’s annual concerts in Carnegie Hall and premiered on January 23, 1943, the epic work is considered a seminal musical composition of the 20th century and in Ellington’s words, “is a parallel to the history of the American Negro.” While some parts of the suite were revised and recorded by Ellington after the premiere, the full-length version of the 1943 concert was not released until 1977, three years after his death. Now the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis imbues new life into Ellington’s jazz symphony with a modern interpretation of the complete work that’s full of creative colors and intensities.
Black, Brown and Beige, as the title suggests, is a three-part suite: Black encompasses “Work Song,” “Come Sunday” and “Light;” Brown includes “West Indian Dance,” “Emancipation Celebration” and “Blues Theme Mauve.” The final part, Beige, is comprised of “Various Themes” which depict different historical periods of the African American experience, “Sugar Hill Penthouse,” and the “Finale.”
Highlights of the album include the ballad “Come Sunday,” which features soulful, bluesy violin playing from Eli Bishop and an emotional alto sax solo played by Sherman Irby reminiscent of famed saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Halfway through the album, trumpeter and bandleader Wynton Marsalis is featured on “Emancipation Celebration,” a joyful movement that begins with a screaming muted trumpet solo. “Blues Theme Mauve” spotlights the rich, emotional vocals of Brianna Thomas along with a warm and poignant tenor sax solo played by Julian Lee. The album concludes with “Finale” which goes through different styles and loud brassy passages for a dramatic and swinging ending.
According to the liner note essay by Joe Alterman, “Ellington was treated to a condescending criticism” following the premiere of Black, Brown and Beige “that breezily regarded his ambition and unequaled skill as arrogance and “uppity”…The tactic obviously worked because Ellington was stung by the criticism and only performed the entire piece once more. This recording is part of the ongoing campaign to right that wrong.” By showcasing the timelessness of Duke Ellington’s music and presenting a defining and exemplar interpretation of Black, Brown and Beige, the JLCO surely does the composer justice.
Reviewed by Ana M. Nelson