Reminiscent of Wynton Marsalis's conceptual extravaganzas at Lincoln Center in New York, Sweet Thunder finds Wynton's younger brother Delfeayo reinventing Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's 1957 tribute to William Shakespeare via his typically astute arrangements and a sterling octet that includes two other Marsalis brothers, saxophonist Branford and drummer Jason. Although merely a musical soundtrack to a live theatrical performance touring the U.S. during 2011, the dozen songs here can also proudly stand on their own, aided by Delfeayo's intimate knowledge of the material (his master's thesis was on the connections between Ellington and Shakespeare) and just the right mixture of exacting composition (from both Marsalis and Ellington-Strayhorn) and freewheeling improvisation.
Delfeayo's command of the subject is confident enough to take liberties with both the ordering and the length of Ellington's original project (entitled Such Sweet Thunder), while retaining the octet form. Three songs that were mere interludes for Ellington and Strayhorn are now three and four times longer, and not coincidentally rank among the most satisfying tracks. "Sonnet to Hank Cinq" glides from New Orleans swing to blazing bop through terse and turbulent horn solos from Delfeayo and Branford, tenor Mark Shim and trumpeter Tiger Okoshi. "Sonnet in Search of a Moor" opens with a gorgeous bass clarinet from Jason Marshall (an unsung hero on this instrument and baritone sax throughout the record) and gallops down the stretch with pianist Red Atkins and drummer Winard Harper trading and joining phrases. And the closer, "Circle of Fourths" flirts with "outside" entropy but is ably reined (and reigned) by bassist Charnett Moffett (both plucking and bowing) and Jason Marsalis, who still erupts for one of his trademark fusillades.
But Delfeayo is also enough of a scholar and aesthete to unearth the substance of Ellington's palette and imagination, closely following the composer on some occasions and using his ideas as a launching pad at other times. The sinuous beauty of "Half The Fun" is recreated, albeit with Branford's soprano subbing in for the alto of Johnny Hodges. And the wry wit of both Ellington and Shakespeare is evident in the peppy "Up + Down, Up + Down" and the taut roil of "Madness in Great Ones," that appear back-to-back in the middle of the disc.
There is plenty more to appreciate here, including one of Mulgrew Miller's classic blues-bop solos (on "The Telecasters") that channels his roots in both the Memphis-Mississippi scene and with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and a relatively faithful "Such Sweet Thunder" that captures Ellington's nimble blues erudition.