Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper

The jazz world has long since canonized Duke Ellington, and the classical world was not far behind either. Even in his lifetime, concert emcees routinely referred to him as “the great Duke Ellington” in his presence. Seated beside a grand piano, his image was even placed on a 2009 quarter — only the second musician to be honored by a United States coin (the other was Stephen Foster).

Sometimes, though, it’s easy to overlook the life-affirming working musician behind the monument. But all you have to do is put on a record by his big band — any edition of the band from any era will do — and you will be uplifted by the unquenchable Ellington urge to swing and dazzled by the mix of instrumental colors generated by the unique personalities of his sidemen.

Also, Ellington was a man of change, one of just a few musicians who were able to absorb and use the rapid developments in jazz during their lengthy careers without losing their personal signatures. He likely would have wanted his successors to continue to evolve the music — and that is what Robert Glasper, the keyboardist who roams all over the Black music spectrum, had in mind for his “Robert Glasper Reimagines Ellington” program at Walt Disney Concert Hall Saturday night, kicking off the LA Phil’s Ellington festival.

Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper

And not only that — the concert took place on Jan. 15, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, calling to attention Ellington’s mission to stand tall for the history and dignity of Black people through compositions like Black, Brown and Beige, A Tone Parallel to Harlem, My People, Three Black Kings, and many others. An activist who played at the 2020 March on Washington and is about to release the third volume in a series of Black Radio albums next month, Glasper would deal with that side of Ellington, too. But not for a while.

A teeming drum groove from Damion Reid led off “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” — doo-bop, doo-bop, doo-bop, and all that — in a fast post-bop treatment by a quartet with vocals by Bilal. A lengthy resonant bass solo fed into “In a Mellotone,” driven by swinging brushes with some tasty trumpet work from Keyon Harrold. Glasper played a reflective solo extrapolation of “African Flower”/“Sophisticated Lady” with the voice of Duke as a ghostly, echo-delayed presence. With the addition of regular Glasper collaborator Terrace Martin on alto sax, the quartet became a quintet on a fast-paced freebop run through “Take the Coltrane,” a selection from Ellington’s one-off collaboration with John Coltrane. So far, stylistically I’d say we were up to about 1965, hardly a “reimagining” that Ellington wouldn’t have recognized, but maybe that was the point, laying a base for what would eventually follow.

Duke started to get seriously reimagined after intermission as Glasper, now in a spangled black jacket that got oohs and aahs from the crowd, fielded a 24-piece pickup chamber ensemble (the String Candy Orchestra) with charts arranged and conducted by Derrick Hodge, who often plays bass in Glasper’s groups. As before, there wasn’t much digging into the enormous trove of Ellingtonia beyond a few well-worn standards, yet what Glasper and Hodge did with them turned out to be quite inventive — and ultimately quite moving.

Fragments of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train” were mashed up into a surreal fantasy with astral electronic effects dished up by DJ Jahl Sundance against a steady groove and an interpolated Caravan” string serenade. In a Sentimental Mood” was a vehicle for suave strings, mallets on cymbals, unabashed cocktail-style piano, and a falsetto vocal.

Derrick Hodge
Derrick Hodge | Credit: Alan Jackman

The most audacious reimagining used “Satin Doll” — Ellington’s last big hit tune — as a launching pad. At first, there was broad humor — which we desperately need in jazz — neo-classical string toccatas interspersed with retorts from Glasper’s piano and verbal kibitzing between Glasper and Hodge. The orchestra then rose in delicious chaos, succeeded by a complex drum solo.

Then came voices from the DJ’s laptop name-checking the Black victims of police and vigilante shootings in recent years — starting with George Floyd — as the harp, flute, and strings swirled like a bad dream. Toward the end, the voices were whittled down to the electronically processed voice of eminence grisé Harry Belafonte repeating the words; “Let me tell you who I am. I am one of the ones of color who got over. I’m one of the ones your bullet missed.” Glasper had previously used Belafonte’s speech in “Got Over” on his 2015 Covered album, but the message hit home harder in this context — and Glasper himself looked moved to tears when the piece was over.

There was one more selection to go after that, but essentially the mission had been accomplished. Duke Ellington had been catapulted into our turbulent times.