Planet D Nonet: Blues To Be There

Detroit band are known for their tributes - to Sun Ra, Fletcher Henderson, Thelonious Monk and others. This time it's space-age Duke Ellington


The Detroit-based swing band Planet D Nonet was founded 16 years ago by its co-leaders percussionist RJ Spangler and trumpeter James O’Donnell. Blues To Be There follows the pattern set by their previous albums with each release focusing on a particular artist or theme. Projects to date have included homages to Sun Ra, Fletcher Henderson, Billy Strayhorn, Township Jazz, Thelonious Monk and Louis Jordan. Most recent was their 2022 Tribute To Buddy Johnson. For an idea of how the band sounds and performs here’s a clip from their Fats Waller repertoire six years ago at Detroit’s Scarab Club.

The numbers chosen for Blues To Be There are mostly little-known songs from Ellington’s 1956/63 period. The exceptions to the rule are Take The A Train (well-known and recorded in 1941), VIP’s Boogie/Jam With Sam (recorded 1951) and U.M.M.G. (relatively well known). Spangler says the project is unifying for the band because some of the players have a swing-era perspective while others are more hard-bop oriented. “They can all find themselves in this music.”

The band’s sound recalls that of Ellington’s later orchestra but each musician puts their individual stamp on the music. The opening track, Spacemen, comes from Ellington’s 1958 LP, The Cosmic Scene, while Pie Eye’s Blues and Swingers Get The Blues Too are both from Blues In Orbit (1958/59). Chinoiserie was recorded for The Nutcracker Suite (1960) and the smoldering title track, Blues To Be There, is from Ellington At Newport – the live recording of the 1956 festival concert which caused an uproar and revitalised Ellington’s career.

Moon Maiden was commissioned for ABC’s television coverage of the moon landing in 1969 and marked Ellington’s public debut as a vocalist. Planet D’s trombonist, Tbone Paxton, sings the number here and actually makes a better fist of it than the Duke did. Blow By Blow was first recorded on the Harlem album (1964) while Tigresse, Purple Gazelle, Bonga and Moonbow are all from Afro-Bossa (1963). Way Early Subtone and Almost Cried are from the film soundtrack of Anatomy Of A Murder (1959) composed by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn while Strayhorn’s U.M.M.G. was released on Historically Speaking in 1956.

This new album from Planet D Nonet delivers exuberant arrangements, a bevy of top-class soloists and exhilarating ensemble playing.

Spacemen; Pie Eye’s Blues; Chinoiserie; Blues To Be There; Moon Maiden; The Swingers Get The Blues Too; Blow By Blow; Tigress; Almost Cried; Purple Gazelle; Way Early Subtone; Take The A Train; U.M.M.G; Bonga; Moonbow; VIP’s Boogie/Jam With Sam (68.01)
Alex Colista (as, ss); Christopher Tabaczynski (ts, cl); Goode Wyche (bar, cl); James O’Donnell (t, v); Charlie Miller (t, flh); Tbone Paxton (tb, v); Michael Zaporski (p, v); Trevor Lamb (b); Sean Perlmutter (d); RJ Spangler (cga, v). Guests: Alex Harding (bar); Ryan Bills (ts); Kasan Belgrave (cga). Michigan, 2022.
Eastlawn Records ELD 40