Perhaps adopting the persona of the bands of Raymond Scott, the John Kirby Sextet, or Don Byron's Bug Music, Ballin' the Jack primarily present the music of Duke Ellington, originally arranged and adapted with an unabashed playful fervor, pegging the crazy fun meter. Out of the speakers leap 11 tracks of depth, swing, and edginess. The musicianship is rather bodacious coming from multi-woodwindists Andy Laster and Matt Darriau, trumpeter Frank London, trombonist Art Baron, guitarist Ben Sher, bassist Joe Fitzgerald, drummer George Schuller, and special guests, particularly sax/brass doubler Peck Allmond on four cuts. Of the Ellington faves, "Rockin' in Rhythm" is a fairly straight read, raucously swinging with pianist Anthony Coleman's atypical Monk-styled lead-in. The stealthy and elongated (nine minutes) "Echoes of Harlem" allows everyone to get at least two cents' worth of solos in. An unusual non-orchestral take of "Mood Indigo" has twangy guitar, Laster's open-hearted baritone sax, and Baron's wah-wah trombone, while "Jeep's Blues" recovers from an introductory acid flashback to return to an easier swing, Darriau's sax still a bit freaked. Half of "Happy Go Lucky Local" sounds quite unlike the original, replete with train whistle refrains; the other half resembles the true form. A non-Ellington-penned piece, Charlie Shavers' "Dawn on the Desert" is a clarinet-led caravan rhythm informed by the tasteful Schuller, and the band is full of emotional woe and chattering about it, a true tour de force piece. Herschel Evans' "Texas Shuffle" is a head-noddin' groover, with multi-layered horns preceding and following a fine, clean, jazzy guitar solo à la Eddie Lang from Sher. Rex Stewart's "Menelik" (The Lion of Judah) goes through a million changes from out to straight and bouncing off the walls in three and a half minutes, the trumpets of Allmond and London blaring like the author in his heyday. Of the many centennial tributes to Ellington, this could be the most entertaining and forward-thinking, as Ballin' the Jack revives these tunes in an ultra-modern way that makes them seem like they were just written.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos