Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Duke Ellington tribute at Maudslay

You can see it on his face in the YouTube video: This gig was a little outside his comfort zone. Mark Harvey is usually surrounded by an orchestra, not playing solo, and the numbers he calls out are usually way more swinging — not to disparage the nation's number-one tune. And, although he's collaborated with jazz monsters like George Russell and Gil Evans and played some big shows and festivals, this one was pretty nerve-racking: 40,000 people watching you live and God knows how many more on the tube — plenty, to be sure, seeing how it was a Red Sox home stand against the hated Yankees.

Harvey, a Boston-based trumpeter and bandleader, acquitted himself nicely in the April performance of the National Anthem at Fenway Park. Then, as he's walking off the infield, he looks straight into the camera, raises his eyebrows, quizzically, and smiles. What was that all about? He admits to feeling a bit of relief after the 1:20-minute performance. "There was the pressure factor," he says. "I was just hoping that I did a good job." The crowd seemed to think so, but Harvey will definitely be on more comfortable ground next week, when he brings the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra to the Maudslay Arts Center, where the 17-piece orchestra will perform a Salute to Duke Ellington.

An Ellington scholar who teaches jazz history at MIT, Harvey formed the Aardvark in 1973, taking the name from a miscellaneous category of the Boston Phoenix classified section. "Aardvark was the place in the classified for things that didn't fit into other sections," he says. "It was the perfect name for what I wanted to do." The band premiered more than 100 works for jazz orchestra and has released 10 albums, plays across jazz styles and traditions but, over the past two decades, has increasingly focused on Ellington — not just the big hits, like "Take the A-Train," or "Satin Doll" or "Mood Indigo," but also rarities and the sacred concerts of his later years, which attempted, with mixed critical results, to fuse liturgical musical traditions and jazz. This range is what is one of the things that first attracted Harvey to Ellington, and, he says, is one of the reasons for Ellington's continuing popularity. "He was always challenging his audience to stay fresh as listeners as he was staying fresh as a composer," he says.

The two-hour program will include favorites such as "Solitude," "Caravan" and "Come Sunday," as well as original transcriptions of "The Mooche," an Ellington piece from the 1920s, and "Daydream" by Billy Strayhorn, the long-time artistic partner of Ellington. Also on the program will be rarities like "Almost Cried," a lush, beautiful ballad, and "Pie Eyes' Blues," an up-tempo blues number from Ellington's score for the Otto Preminger-directed "Anatomy of a Murder." Ellington played the bandleader Pie Eyes in the film. The orchestra will also perform Harvey's "110 Blues," written in honor of the Ellington 110th birthday, and will play "No Walls," a Harvey piece inspired by Doctors Without Borders and Ellington’s philosophy of moving beyond categories.

Harvey is also an ordained minister, which, he admits, "may seem odd at first," he says, "but in the history of jazz, there has always been a great spiritual dimension to jazz. You hear it in Coltrane, you hear it in Ellington." Which, of course, turns the concept of "devil's music," as jazz (and before it, blues, and after it, rock) has been called. "It's not the devil's music at all," he says. "We've taken it back."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra performs a "Salute to Duke," with classics and rarities by Duke Ellington, at 7 p.m. July 18 at the Maudslay Arts Center, 95 Curzon Mill Road, Newburyport. Ticket are $20 for patio seating, or $18 for a spot on the lawn. Lawn seating is free for children 12 and under. For reservations, call 978-499-0050 or log onto

About the MAC's's summer series here.

About Aardvark Jazz Orchestra here.

Harvey playing the National Anthem here.

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