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When Tad Calcara set out to design a New Deal Swing Band concert around the music of Duke Ellington, he realized it could only be a teaser.
Ellington wrote more than 1,000 compositions, spanning jazz, blues, gospel, film scores and popular and classical music. When he died in 1974, Ellington was memorialized as one of the greatest American composers of any style and as a great American. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and the Pulitzer Prize, posthumously, in 1999.
New Deal frontman Calcara, who is also the Utah Symphony's principal clarinetist, said he is amazed by the immensity and quality of the Duke's output.
"What's interesting is that even in the small pop songs, there is a lot of interesting stuff going on harmonically and melodically," Calcara said. "Certain traits are Ellingtonian in the way he would write, arrange or orchestrate for his band. He was always listening to what was happening around him and constantly evolving."
Calcara favors Ellington's Big Band period of the 1930s and '40s, maintaining that the Duke's swing music was "always a few levels above the rest always looking for meaning, or something truly original."
Utah vocalist Melissa Pace Tanner will croon tunes such as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart." The band will sample some of Ellington's jazz arrangements of classical music, such as selections from Grieg's "Peer Gynt" and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" suites.
Ellington was a keen observer of important people of his day, some of whom became subjects of musical portraits. His tuneful summation of tap-dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson will be on the program.
"It captures so beautifully and eloquently the style of this man's tap dancing, yet it avoids the obvious clichés of trying to represent tap dance musically," Calcara said.
Expect to hear signature pieces such as "Take the 'A' Train, "Creole Love Call" and "Mood Indigo." "Jungle Nights in Harlem" captures street sounds through growling tombones and bluesy saxophone licks.
As in past New Deal concerts, the band will perform from historic musical manuscripts from the Smithsonian museum and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Intermission offers an opportunity to view a lobby display of Big Band memorabilia.
During the evening's second half, the audience is invited to put Ellington's swing music to its intended purpose dancing. Great dance tunes by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Lunceford are on the playlist, along with the Duke's immortal tunes.
Swing this way
The 16-piece New Deal Swing Band honors jazz and swing pioneer Duke Ellington.
When • Sunday, April 22, at 7 p.m.
Where • Kol Ami synagogue, 2425 Heritage Way, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $25 ($15 seniors/students); $300 for 8-person cabaret table