Yesterday afternoon’s offering in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church presented Erik Jekabson’s String-tet, a jazz combo distinguished by the presence of both a violin (Mads Tolling) and a viola (Charith Premawardhana). Jekabson led on trumpet with Michael Zilber joining him on the front line (actually the right side of the stage), alternating between soprano and tenor saxophone. John Wiitala played bass; and Malachi Whitson took the drums, filling in for an ailing Smith Dobson. Several selections included Dillon Vado on vibraphone, and Adam Shulman took the piano as special guest.
All selections involved Duke Ellington in one way or another. Most were his original compositions with one composed jointly with Billy Strayhorn. Jekabson concluded the program with his own “Sweet Face,” which, in many ways, was a loving homage to many familiar Ellington tropes. The entire program consisted of eight pieces, played without intermission.
The range of that program covered a broad expanse of Ellington’s creative efforts, reaching back to his Cotton Club days with “The Mooche” and going all the way into the mid-Sixties with a movement from the suite he composed with Strayhorn based on John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday. If anything was missing, it was an example of his “international” pieces, inspired by music he heard during his band’s world tours. The group alternated between versions Ellington had recorded and/or published and Jekabson’s own arrangements. The most distinguished of the latter was a version of “C Jam Blues” that had more to do with Weather Report fusion than with “Duke’s Place” as we have come to expect it.
All selections were distinguished by the rather unique sound of the group. The basic approach seemed to explore the opposition between the more “conventional” sounds of trumpet and saxophone (on the right) with the violin and viola (on the left). The latter were amplified, and it took a bit of time for the group to home in on a workable balance. This was due, in part, to Zilber’s forceful descant when the show opened with the first phrase of “The Mooche.” As the program proceeded, it was clear that Silber was excellent in keeping his dynamics under control for the sake of a proper balance of the entire ensemble; but he still tended to roar out his solos with a rhetoric that included a few well-chosen honks.
For his part, Shulman was a bit more than just a special guest, since the piano was Ellington’s instrument. When working with Ellington’s own material, one could almost believe he was channeling the master; and a bit of that sense also pervaded his approach to Jekabson’s arrangements. One could almost parody Hokusai and call the program, in its entirety, Eight Views of Duke Ellington (including Jekabson’s original piece at the end). Taken as a whole, this was an afternoon that honored Ellington’s legacy while, at the same time, demonstrating that one can still move forward in approaching his music.