Balkan brass combo Slavic Soul Party! deliver a knockout treatment of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Balkan brass combo Slavic Soul Party! deliver a knockout treatment of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite


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New York combo Slavic Soul Party!, led by versatile percussionist Matt Moran, has arguably advanced the cause of Balkan brass music further than any other U.S.-based group, honoring the rollicking Romani style popularized by the likes of Boban Markovic and Fanfare Ciocarlia while putting its own spin on the tradition. Over its 17-year history, the group has mostly consisted of jazz musicians, but they’re players with omnivorous appetites and sophisticated palates. Their range has allowed the band to accommodate a heavy New Orleans brass-band vibe as well as bring a fiery improvisational brio to its performances. Last year SSP! recorded the entirety of Duke Ellington’s brilliant 1967 album Far East Suite, a work inspired by an international tour Ellington’s orchestra took in 1963 as part of a State Department cultural-­diplomacy program. The album includes the timeless Billy Strayhorn ballad “Isfahan,” but its pieces also reveal how thoughtfully Ellington updated the sound of his orchestra to keep up with the evolution of pop music—bringing some serious funk, for instance, to the tune “Blue Pepper.” Ellington had his tour cut short by Kennedy’s assassination and never brought his orchestra to the regions whose music SSP! reimagines, but the latter group’s jacked-up arrangements suggest what kind of flavor Ellington might have sprinkled across these tunes if he had. The most distinctive quality here is the drumming—Moran specializes in the double-­headed tapan, producing a forceful, prodding sound, while Chris Stromquist plays a snare with plenty of press rolls. The martial propulsion of their combined sound pairs beautifully with the ebullient brass lines. SSP! will play the Ellington record at Chicago Jazz Festival this afternoon, then tap into their standard Balkan repertoire for an evening set at Martyrs’.   v

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