Billy Drewes – Alto Sax & Clarinet
Jim Rotondi – Trumpet & Flugelhorn
Ed Neumeister – Trombone
Fritz Pauer – Piano
Peter Herbert – Contra Bass
Jeff Ballard – Drums
Arranged and Produced by Ed Neumeister
In memory of Fritz Pauer
Celebrating the 100th birthday of the great Billy Strayhorn, composer, arranger, trombonist, Ed Neumeister, releases his latest album with a collection of his arrangements of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s lessor known masterpieces arranged for jazz sextet. Included in the collection is the complete Queens Suite, Come Sunday from Black Brown & Beige, DEPK from the Far East Suite, and the Juan Tizol classic Caravan.
Featuring some of the finest interpreters of creative music today. Ed Neumeister, who played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for over fifteen years, takes the Ellington/Strayhorn evolution as inspiration and adds his personal touch to the arrangements that allows the players to contribute with their own unique voices resulting in a modern creative reading of these half-century old classics.
Suite Ellington - CD
George W. Harris
November 3, 2016
Trombonist Ed Neumeister explores the underappreciated small group sound and vision of Duke Ellington on this album with Billy Drewes/as-cl, Jim Rotondi/tp-fh, Fritz Pauer/p, Peter Herbert/b and Jeff Ballard/dr.
Neumeister wisely gives homage to the harmonies and textures of Ellington without succumbing to blind imitation. The centerpiece, a 6 part interpretation of “The Queens Suite” gives lots of space for Pauer’s relaxed piano on “Sunset and the Mocking Bird” while Drewes’ clarinet chirps on “Lightning Bugs and Frogs.” The horns create rich textures on “Le Sucrier Velours the leader gets Lawrence Brown-buttery on “The Single Pedal of A Rose” and the team gets a bit frisky under Herbert’s groove on “Apes and Peacocks.”
The team is loose on the horns as Ballard is crisp during “Caravan” as Drewes’ alto sears, and his clarinet is drop dead gorgeous along with Rotondi’s muted horn on the delightful “Come Sunday.” All of this material was recorded n a 2010 concert except for “Single Pedal” and the gig ended with a bouncy “DEPK” which has the leader in a swinging mood. A great tribute and intro to the world of Ellingtonia.
June 26, 2016
A complete summary of trombonist Ed Neumeister's musical career would date back to his pre-school years. Initially a regular fixture on the San Francisco circuit, he later immersed himself in the New York jazz scene dividing almost thirty-five years between the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Mel LewisBig Band. His additional experiences with classical orchestras and ensembles helped solidify his skills as a conductor and composer. On Suite Ellington, Neumeister and his sextet take on some familiar and less covered Ellington compositions, leaving their distinctive mark on each piece.
Reed player Billy Drewes has recorded and toured with many well-known artists like Herbie Hancock, Bill Frisell, Randy Brecker and John Abercrombie. Trumpeter Jim Rotondihas most notably worked in the big bands of Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton and Toshiko Akiyoshi. He is a founding member of the sextet One For All, which features saxophonist Eric Alexander. The late pianist Fritz Pauer play with Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon and others, while bassist Peter Herbert spread it around with pop luminaries like Paul Simon and the third-stream composer Franz Koglmann. The best known member of the group is drummer Jeff Ballard whose associations with Pat Methenyand especially Brad Mehldau make him the contemporary jazz household name in this sextet.
While Billy Strayhorn is a key element in Suite Ellington, the set opens with the exception, the classic "Caravan" composed by Juan Tizol and Ellington. Typical of most tracks here, Neumeister unwraps the piece with some degree of reverence to the original. But his ability to literally and figuratively make the trombone speak in a humanoid voice, is a big part of the interpretation of these compositions. The Queens Suite, written for the UK monarch, is a lesser known work but a great example of Ellington/Strayhorn's rhythmic flexibility. The Far East Suite is represented with "DEPK.' The suite, motivated by a 1963 tour of the Middle East was, like The Queens Suite, rarely performed by Ellington. Neumeister and company take this piece first on face value and then reinvent the arrangements.
Neumeister and Pauer lead the way in the creative license taken with these legacy compositions. In most cases, they are surprising bold in their scope and tractability. Along with Drewes and Rotondi, the players infuse their unique creative spirit while maintaining the solid foundation that these Ellington/Strayhorn pieces deserve. Aside from Neumeister's own artistic accomplishment on Suite Ellington, we are reminded that Strayhorn was Ellington's equal in every way short of notoriety and a public face.
June 27, 2016
I’ve written about various people at the festival that I had not known prior to their event. Ed’s talk was different. I’ve been a fan of Ed Neumeister for many years, notably from his work in the Thad Jones Mel Lewis band. His beautiful performance on Butter was one of my favorites. He’s a very eclectic musician with a resume that includes being a renown jazz player, writing for film, conducting orchestras, as a professor of trombone at the University of the Performing Arts, Graz Austria, and to my knowledge, the only trombone player to give a Ted Talk.
But this day at Julliard, Ed would talk about practicing.
Ed told us he was a student of the martial arts, and I believe he mentioned Tai Chi and Qigong. He talked about his philosophy of warming up. In fact, he argued against even calling it warming up since practicing is “getting ready” to perform. So what is warming up? “Getting ready to get ready?”, he asked. From the time you take your first breath to play for the day, it’s just all performing.
He asked each of us to close our eyes and breath deeply. As we breathed, he had us visualize our breathing. Watch it go in and then go out. He said he spends several minutes each day doing this meditation prior to putting horn on his mouth. He asked us to take as deep a breath as possible, then “sip” in small extra quantities of air to fill our lungs as much as possible. He then had us release the air evenly through the opening in our lips as if we were playing. Obviously, proper breathing is of paramount importance to Ed’s practicing. Whenever he is about to play a note, he takes a very purposeful deep breath. I saw him breath this way in his other performances throughout the week.
At the conclusion of the mediation, Ed talked philosophically about practicing. He encouraged us to again think of this playing time as a performance – and an important one at that. Rather than churning through fast lip slurs and interval exercises, he played through some simple melodies. Long notes over a slow tempo.
To his way of thinking, there’s not just one routine. Your practicing/performing is based on what you need for that time. Maybe you need to work on your tonguing, maybe on range, maybe on breathing. Related to his eastern meditative philosophy, he encouraged each of us to be aware of what we need to work on at any given time – and that’s the playing you do on your own time that most people call practicing.
To put my own interpretation on Ed Neumeister, I would characterize him as present. Many of us are avid time travelers, our minds swirling about with what we must do later, or why we did something earlier, not really being in the moment. At those times we are going through the motions of our current activity without being present enough to realize what we are doing. And if we conduct our solitary performances (practicing) within our time machine, we aren’t aware enough of how we sound to make the necessary improvements. “I did those exercises.” Check the box. “I played those etudes.” Check the next box. How was your practice? “Great, I practiced for 5 hours.”
I asked him if he spends time working on his plunger technique. After all, he is widely known for his great ability with a plunger. Later in the festival he and Wycliffe Gordon performed a duet of Stompin’ at the Savoy with each of them on plunger. It was brilliant! He talked about the hand position and making different sounds. Like Wycliffe, he uses a small mute inside the bell AND a plunger. Apparently he has quite a collection of mutes, having spent a lot of time searching for the perfect mutes.
It was a terrific hour listening to this master share aspects of his personal playing philosophy with us and hearing him play. To hear some of this for yourself, visit his sitewhere you can download his book and listen to several videos.
The 15 years that Ed Neumeister spent in the Duke Ellington Orchestra proved to be both an education and a source of lifelong inspiration for the trombonist/composer/arranger. During his tenure with the band, Mercer Ellington would sometimes ask Ed to figure out a new arrangement of a tune he wanted to play, providing source material in the form of several versions of the same composition by Ellington and his long-time collaborator Billy Strayhorn, some recordings and a random part or two. Though he’d typically have a short deadline, it was still a thrill for the trombonist to work from original scores handwritten by the masters, and to see how the charts had evolved over the years.
“It was very cool; it was their way of keeping the music fresh for themselves,” Ed says. “They were playing their hits over and over for years; that funded the band. It was a real balancing act: They’d play a dance for four hours, all the hits, then play a concert the next night of less commercial music and other projects. The Ellington band was very good at staying financially viable.”
When Ed wanted to honor the 100th anniversary of Ellington’s birth in 1999, he began delving into the lesser-known compositions he could arrange for a small ensemble. One of the pieces that drew his attention was “The Queen’s Suite,” which the maestro wrote in the late 1950s, after meeting Queen Elizabeth. Ellington had the orchestra record the suite; he had a single copy pressed and sent it to the British monarch; the music wasn’t heard by the public until the mid-1970s, after Ellington’s death.
“It’s amazing to me they’d even think of pressing one copy. Writing a tribute to the queen, okay. But sending her the only copy? That was part of the genius of Ellington—he was very suave, he impressed people with his personality. Ellington wrote ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ but he was a sophisticated guy in all regards.”
In honor of Strayhorn’s centenary, Ed has released Suite Ellington (PAO), a sextet recording of his own arrangements comprising “The Queen’s Suite” and other material. When it comes to who wrote what part of the Ellington/Strayhorn compositions, the lines are blurry. “They were writing for each other,” Ed points out. “Ellington would send Billy a half of a tune, telling him, ‘Finish this.’ And it went the other way, too.”
In choosing the material for the CD, “There was a particular feeling I wanted to explore, to present music not often heard. There’s a huge body of work most people don’t know. I chose things that would work with a smaller band, that were adaptable to my current artistic aesthetic. I did some of the tunes verbatim; others I changed the rhythms, the harmonies, and did arrangements to my own taste, with the idea that Strayhorn and Ellington would have been revisiting, refining and reflecting, if they were still around.”
Most of the CD was recorded live in concert in Graz Austria, where Ed is currently based. “Suite Ellington contains the A-list, the highlights from the concert. It was fun to edit two hours of music down to the highlights, to condense it and make it as strong as possible,” he says.
Ed is planning to move back to the Big Apple in 2017. In the meantime, he’s coming to New York to celebrate the release of Suite Ellington at the Cornelia Street Café on July 7, along with Billy Drewes on saxophone and clarinet, David Berkman on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums. You can also catch Ed playing solo trombone at ShapeShifter Lab July 20.
Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl
June 23, 2016
Ed Neumeister played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for more than 16 years bringing with him his skills as composer, arranger and fierce trombonist. Duke’s son, Mercer (the guy who rescued Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” from the garbage bin), would put the originals in Neumeister’s hands and call for a new arrangement. Neumeister, ever the student of Ellington and Strayhorn, would build on what they had created together.
“Suite Ellington” (PAO Records PAO11290) was originally done for Ellington’s 100th birthday in 1999. The work was brought back to life for a 2010 tour and the live recording is what has now been presented to us. An additional track, “The Single Pedal of a Rose” was recorded in late 2015.
With Neumeister (trombone) are some of his long-time collaborators and brilliant artists such as Billy Drewes (clarinet and alto saxophone), Jim Rotondi (trumpet and flugelhorn), the late Fritz
Pauer (piano), Peter Herbert (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums). The album is dedicated to the memory of Fritz Pauer.
The album opens with one of my very favorite pieces ever performed by Ellington, Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” The arrangement is superb. The phenomenal Jeff Ballard opens with Peter Herbert’s bass to open the piece. Ballard turns Afro-Cuban rhythms lose while the horns do some sweet mix-ups on the melody. This is not a straightforward arrangement of the original, it is a worthy reinterpretation of the work.
Fritz Pauer also turns in fine piano work to work behind the splendid solos of Drewes and Neumeister. Drewes alto sax solo is a hot excursion but then comes Neumeister’s trombone solo. It is no wonder why he is synonymous with great Jazz trombone. Hearing the trombone—especially Neumeister’s trombone—take the solo on “Caravan” is a thing of beauty.
It is impossible, however, to get enough of Herbert and Ballard. Ballard can sniff out the groove from a mile away. Instead of a caravan, this is more like a band of mounted marauders—striking hard and fast and moving on to their next prey. With the live audience showing their appreciation, you can almost hear the stunned pause before the applause at the conclusion.
Ellington’s own “Come Sunday” is splendidly rendered by Fritz Pauer on piano. It is the longest track on the album but every second is pure joy in the listening. Billy Drewes joins on a sweet clarinet and the two duet together in wondrous understanding.
Neumeister brings his muted trombone into another duet with Herbert’s bass, as piano and clarinet take a seat. The two of them take a different—but no less amazing—path. Neumeister’s trombone-speak is stunning.
Jim Rotondi on trumpet and Jeff Ballard’s drums join with the full group for the final section. It is light-hearted and smart stuff. Beautiful.
“The Queen’s Suite” follows in six movements. Ellington and Strayhorn, Neumeister reminds us in the liner notes, wrote this suite for the Queen of England after meeting her in 1958. Ellington recorded it on one record and sent it to Queen Elizabeth. The work was not brought to the light of day again until 1976.
The first movement is “Sunset and the Mocking Bird.” With the piano trills and the soaring clarinet, a fine picture is painted. A cool deepening-nocturne develops and the horns imagine a warm dusk leading to darkness. It is a fantastic offering of beauty and simple delight.
“Lightning Bugs and Frogs” is a fun look at musical interpretation with throaty horns and quietly striking cymbals. It is happy and even playful against the discipline of the artists. The piece envisions an early evening festival of summer’s creatures in chorus. Neumeister paints the picture in streaming watercolor sounds that merge and blend together into something remarkable.
“Le Sucrier Velours” opens with the smooth bass and piano. Ballard joins in with the brushes before the addition of the horns. This is one of those numbers that sounds like it was crafted for just such an ensemble. The melded horns are superb and Fritz Pauer’s piano work if exceptional. "Velvet Sugar," indeed.
“The Single Pedal of a Rose” is the great spotlight for Neumeister’s solo trombone. The tonality is extraordinary and the phrasing is fascinating. The falling action is like the pedals that have dropped away, leaving the single pedal. Gorgeous work.
“Northern Lights” jump starts with the whole band in motion. The horns create an exemplary cohesion that allows so much space for the piano, bass and drums. The rhythm section is exciting and exhilarating.
“Apes and Peacocks” pick up quickly where “Northern Lights” leaves us. Ballard is again at his finest and Herbert works the bass over energetically. The percussive piano is cool as can be and then Ballard gets his solo. The guy is a beast.
The returning horns are exquisite. And Herbert turns in some of his most exciting work on the album here. In fact, this may be the single most exciting piece on the whole album which itself is full of excitement.
The album concludes with “DEPK” from the “Far East Suite.” Billy Drewes nails the clarinet and Herbert walks along with the bass. The horns light it up and Neumeister himself carries the melody with powerful finesse. Pauer creates some cool moments all around and Jim Rotondi gets in some blistering trumpet with Pauer sweeping behind. The audience whoops in appreciation.
With Fritz Pauer’s unexpected passing in 2012, the album—and this song, in particular—is a fine memorial.
Duke Ellington’s words are emblazoned on the interior panel of the album cover. They read: “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mind.” Neumeister brings that union to life once again in this album.
“Suite Ellington” is a work of extraordinary dedication and beauty. Ed Neumeister takes some of the great and renowned works of Ellington and Strayhorn and adds a work that went virtually unknown from 1958-1976. In the process, Neumeister and his colleagues bring Ellington and Strayhorn back around to us in ways that can only make us say “Thank You.”
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl