DUKE’S DREAM / ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN: Far East Suite: Isfahan. ELLINGTON: Satin Doll. Take the Coltrane+. I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good). Reflections in D. Such Sweet Thunder: Sonnet for Caesar. Come Sunday+. PIERANUNZI: Duke’s Drean. Duke’s Atmosphere*. GIULIANI-PIERANUNZI: Trains / Rosario Giuliani, a-sax/*s-sax; Enrico Pieranunzi, pn/+el-pn / Intuition INT 3445-2
Here’s a surprisingly good and creative “tribute” CD. So many such discs that have crossed my desk of late have been so insipid that to call them tributes to their models is an embarrassment to the latter, but in pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and saxist Rosario Giuliani we have two musicians who really feel the music as well as think about it.
Their style is both alive and emotionally involved in the music; Pieranunzi’s pianistic approach is more on the order of Earl Hines or Martial Solal than any of the soft-grained pianists who unfortunately dominate the scene nowadays. He plays mostly long, single-note lines in the right hand with occasional chordal or arpeggio support from the left; he seems to be allergic to soft, slow ballad tempos, thank goodness, which means that even such normally dragged-out pieces as I Got it Bad, Reflections in D and Come Sunday are infused with a sense of drama. Giving himself splendid support from his left hand, he doesn’t need a bassist. Giuliani takes a similar approach on the alto sax (and soprano in one number), his playing recalling some of the late-1950s bop players with touches of 1960s jazz in it. In short, they are the perfect duo to be reinterpreting, and paying homage to, Ellington, who always prized emotional played over the cerebral. I Got it Bad, in fact, seems to be played at least partly in 3 rather than 4, a unique touch I don’t recall hearing anyone else attempt, and the duo gives very “springy” performances of Satin Doll and the little-heard Take the Coltrane.
Moreover, this is a duo that really listens to one another. They both complement and contrast with each other as they take turns soloing; several of the pieces here may best be described as extended “chase choruses” rather than mere solo flights, which gives each piece a unique feeling of structure. I have no way of knowing how many takes were made of each piece before a final version was decided upon, but I can attest that whoever made the final decisions made them well. Simply put, there isn’t a dull or uninteresting moment on this entire album.
Sonnet for Caesar, one of the pieces in the Ellington-Strayhorn suite Such Sweet Thunder, is one of the more sophisticated pieces on the album. Its melodic and harmonic movement, though graspable, is actually very subtle, sounding almost modal in its treatment here. (So many of the Ellington suites written between 1943 and 1966 were influenced by Strayhorn, even when his name was not on them, that trying to determine who wrote what is sometimes a challenge.) The duo gives it a surprisingly contemporary feel here, taking it apart and putting it back together in their own very personal way.
Comment must of course be made of the three tribute pieces here, Pieranunzi’s Duke’s Dream and Duke’s Atmosphere and their joint collaboration, Trains. These are pieces that strongly suggest Ellingtonia without being an actual part of it. Pieranunzi, a lifelong student of jazz, is well aware that although Ellington could indulge himself in unusual chord patterns (as witnessed by such pieces as Wig Wise and T.G.T.T.), it was not his liking as a rule. He enjoyed writing pieces that sometimes had thick chords and/or unusual melodic patterns (listen to The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse or parts of the Second Sacred Concert), but he loved to indulge himself in primarily tonal music and melodic patterns that even an amateur listener could grasp, thus Duke’s Dream follows a similar pattern. To the uninitiated listener, it fits so well into the authentic surrounding material that you might never notice that it wasn’t written by Duke or Strayhorn. Interestingly, Duke’s Dream becomes simpler as it progresses, eventually resolving itself in a repeated six-note lick tossed back and forth between the two musicians with variants coming in the bridge.
Duke’s Atmosphere is a jazz waltz, and a very fine one, here featuring Giuliani on the soprano sax. What I found interesting, however, was that his soprano sound is very full and rich, so much like his alto tone that there is scarcely any difference between them. Pieranunzi is particularly creative on this track, coming up with even more permutations on his original theme than the saxist, who nevertheless contributes some beautiful lines in the middle of the performance. Trains, which follows it immediately, is the most uptempo number on the disc and one that sounded to me as much if not more influenced by the music of Lennie Tristano (all those extended chords and rapidly-moving melodic fragments that somehow or other coalesce into a whole) than Ellington, but it’s certainly an exciting piece, in my view the best of the originals here. Both players seem to revel in the blistering tempo, and despite the Tristano-like quality of the composition, Pieranunzi’s playing has a very strong Ellingtonian feel.
Ending the CD with Come Sunday may seem an odd choice; this is one of Duke’s most personal and, to come listeners, emotionally cloying pieces, but once again the duo keep the tempo moving and come up with some unusual and very personal variants on it. I almost wished that Alice Babs were still alive to sing one of her stratospheric solos above them, so wonderful and deeply-felt is this performance. I especially enjoyed Giuliani’s gospel licks towards the end!
All in all, Duke’s Dream is one of the most surprising and vital duo discs I’ve ever heard, certainly a way of playing the music of a jazz icon in ways you’d never expect.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley