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  • Jonathan Widran


A lover of big bands his whole life, self-taught Japanese-born arranger/composer Mercer Hassey has studied and celebrated the legendary works of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington for years. In the heartfelt liner notes to Duke’s Place by his vibrant, hard swinging 21-piece Mercer Hassy Orchestra, he notes that Ellington’s music has been the cornerstone of his life, adding, “The further I go back in recording history, the more I feel that Ellington’s music, which is full of things that have disappeared from jazz and expressions that do not exist in jazz today, is a gift from God to me.”

The gloriously conceived and vigorously and soulfully performed follow-up to the ensemble’s 2020-21 projects Sir Duke and Don’t Stop the Carnival (which each offer a nod to Ellington), this invitation to Duke’s Place brings 80 to nearly 100 year old standards and obscurities from the Ellington-Strayhorn oeuvre into contemporary, funkier times, where a classic like “Satin Doll” can bustle and groove like never before as subtle yet snappy horns bounce around behind a buoyant lead vibraphone melody.

On the much lesser known but no less explosive side is Ellington’s epic “The Queen’s Suite: Apes and Peacocks” (yes, composed for Queen Elizabeth!), which Hassy and company give an expansive, boisterous swinging excitement centered around solos by guest flutist Nori Tani and soprano saxophonist Kenta Sekiguchi. Barnburners like these and the locomotive jams that open and close the set (“Daybreak Express,” “Happy Go Lucky Local”), Hassy’s crew shines in more subtle but no less engaging ways on a smoky reading of “In A Sentimental Mood” (featuring tenor saxophonist Ray Iwasa) and the dreamy, almost mystical vocal medley of “Prelude to a Kiss-Solitude.” which feature male and female lead vocalists and an angelic choir.   


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