With musicological thoroughness, some crack musicians and the best of intentions, John Lewis leads New York's American Jazz Orchestra in 15 transcriptions from one of Duke Ellington's prime periods (1940-43), plus "Rockin' In Rhythm" from 1930. If you had not heard the originals, you would probably come away from these reinterpretations exhilarated, because the AJO does a scrupulously vigorous job. The soloists occasionally parrot the notes of the original Ellingtonians but are also allowed at other times to go their own way, with tenor saxophonist/orchestra manager Loren Schoenberg taking on the mantle of Ben Webster with a light touch. Lewis himself appears on piano only in "Bojangles" and a freely adapted "Rockin' In Rhythm"; Mel Lewis drives the rhythm section expertly, if more flamboyantly than the style of Duke's Sonny Greer. Besides standards like "Take the 'A' Train," "Warm Valley," "Jack the Bear," "Concerto for Cootie," and "Cotton Tail," there is also room for less-heralded but worthy swingers like the Ellingtonian treatment of "Sidewalks of New York." Still, although it is certainly true that the music is there in the score -- as a visitor to the sessions commented -- the unique timbres and blendings of the Ellington orchestra are elusive as ever, although there are times ("Bojangles") when the spirit almost conjures itself. If a choice has to be made between the originals and these reinterpretations, go with the originals, but the AJO versions aren't a bad second choice at all.
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AllMusic Review by Richard S. Ginell