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Graham Reynolds' Re-Imagined 'Portraits' Of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington's orchestra was one of a host of jazz acts that appeared regularly at the Apollo Theater in New York City. The bandleader wrote more than 1,000 compositions — many that remain jazz standards today.

Ellington's body of work can be daunting for musicians who want to put their own stamp on his well-known compositions. Bandleader and composer Graham Reynolds tackled seven Ellington pieces from the 1930s and '40s. The results appear on his latest album, DUKE! Three Portraits of Ellington. He tells Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Audie Cornish that the inspiration for the album rose from a love of performance.

"At first I was trying my best not to think," he says. "I compose every day and I'm writing constantly, but I like to perform. So I said, 'I want a vehicle to perform that is something that I don't have to think about as a composer, but as a bandleader and arranger.' Mostly I just wanted to have fun with it."

The album is divided into three sections, or portraits. In the first part, the songs are performed by a big band; in the second, by a string quartet; and in the last, they are remixed by DJs. Reynolds says that having a foundation for each portrait made his job as a composer easier.

"The hardest stage of creating something is the idea," he says. "If you've got a pool of ideas and a palette, you're a huge way toward your finish line."

Reynolds says that this exercise taught him how to be a better composer.

"I listened to a lot of Ellington while creating this project," he says. "Seeing how he evolved over time and how he accepted new collaborative partners gave me hope that I can be that open to influence and sharing."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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