Pictured: In a special collaboration with California Shakespeare Theater, Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra celebrates the legacy of Duke Ellington on Friday May 2, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall.  PHOTO: Peter Varshavsky
In a special collaboration with California Shakespeare Theater, Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra celebrates the legacy of Duke Ellington on Friday May 2 at 8:00 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Peter Varshavsky

Duke Ellington was riding high in 1957 when he released the album Such Sweet Thunder, a suite of tunes composed with Billy Strayhorn loosely inspired by the sonnets and plays of William Shakespeare. After a long stretch in the wilderness, when it seemed that Ellington’s mighty orchestra might go the way of all the other great swing era big bands, he roared back into the limelight with the triumphant 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The concert rejuvenated Ellington, spawned a hit live album, and returned him to his singular status as America’s nonpareil composer and bandleader, prompting the maestro to proclaim frequently thereafter, “I was born at Newport.”

No one in the Bay Area has done more to promote and extend Ellington’s orchestral legacy than Sacramento-raised bassist/composer Marcus Shelby, who brings his talent-laden 16-piece ensemble to Cal Performances on Friday for “The Legacy of Duke Ellington: 50 Years of Swing!” a concert marking Ellington’s 115th birthday (April 29) and the upcoming 40th anniversary of his death (May 24). While the program features a wide array of Ellingtonia, it centers on Such Sweet Thunder, a suite that has long fascinated Shelby.

“You go through Ellington’s vast and amazing body of work and eventually you come to Such Sweet Thunder,” Shelby says. “On the surface it’s about Ellington and Strayhorn’s impressions of certain Shakespeare plays, but when you when dig a little big and look at how it’s organized, you understand their approach. It’s nothing to really do with the plays, more notions and snippets that they found inspirational and intriguing, a way to inspired musical expression.”

In Terry Teachout’s recent, execrable biography of Ellington he makes a big deal out of the fact that Ellington and Strayhorn repurposed older compositions for Such Sweet Thunder, as if the composers were breaking some kind of contract with their audience. Of course, there’s no telling what Ellington and Strayhorn communicated directly to the musicians about how to approach the pieces, and while it’s not one of their greatest works Such Sweet Thunder contains several sublime pieces, such as the ballad “The Star-Crossed Lovers.”

“The music is enough to excite you to learn more about the sonnets and plays,” Shelby says. “In some instances discover things you might not have, like a blues sensitivity in the earthy waltz ‘Lady Mac.’ Ellington said that he suspects Lady Macbeth ‘had some ragtime in her soul.’”

“Ellington was a lot like Shakespeare in how they composed”

For Shelby what’s fascinating about the suite is the way it captures “one artist responding to another artist’s work. Ellington was a lot like Shakespeare in how they composed. Shakespeare wrote for the same troupe of actors, much like Duke wrote for his musicians. I find that connection really strong.”

In the Ellingtonian style, Shelby attracted some of the most expressive improvisers in the region and has maintained a steady core of players for 15 years. He first wrote for a large ensemble in 1998 when Elise Robertson hired him to write a score for her short film based on a Ralph Ellison short story King of the Bingo Game. He had recently moved to San Francisco after graduating from Cal Arts, and had been immersing himself in Ellington’s oeuvre. When he helped Intersection For the Arts launch their Jazz at Intersection concert series, he had a homebase for the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra.

Over the years he’s tackled increasingly ambitious projects, exploring various aspects of African-American history on extended works like Port Chicago, Harriet Tubman, and most recently the Civil Rights-opus The Soul of the Movement featuring the extraordinary voices of Kenny Washington, Faye Carol, and Jeannine Anderson. For Such Sweet Thunder he’s trying something new, partnering with actors from California Shakespeare Theater. He was cagey when it came to describing how his orchestra and the actors would interact, but made it clear that he wasn’t going to supply musical accompaniment to recitation.

“We’re illuminating moments”

“That’s out of respect for both the musicians and the actors,” Shelby says. “We’re looking to find another perspective, another way this work can be exposed. We’re not doing the plays, and not even scenes, but illuminating moments and bringing to life these characters.”

The first half of the performance features Shelby’s arrangements of an array of classic tunes from the Ellington Orchestra repertoire, from early masterpieces like “Black and Tan Fantasy” “Creole Love Call,” and “The Mooche” to later hits like “Solitude,” a feature for special guest Faye Carol. He’s designed the program to showcase his band and several guest players, including violinist Matt Szemela, veteran tenor saxophonist Jules Broussard, and Joel Behrman, “a great trombonist, but also great trumpeter who’s featured on ‘Boy With Horn,’ a piece that Duke featured Rex Stewart on for years.”

The concert strikes a delicate balance, focusing on beloved Ellington tunes and lesser-known works. It’s a personal selection by Shelby, who didn’t even try to encompass every facet of Ellington, who composed nearly 1,000 pieces over the course of five decades.

“I like to connect with the audience and play stuff people are going to know,” Shelby says. “I want them to feel like they’re part of the conversation. But at the same time I want to expose them to stuff they don’t know, like Such Sweet Thunder. It’s simply impossible to do the whole breadth of the man.”

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....