PASSION FLOWER: THE MUSIC OF BILLY STRAYHORN / STRAYHORN: Johnny Come Lately. Lush Life.# Rain Check. Star-Crossed Lovers [Pretty Girl]. Isfahan [Elf]. Chelsea Bridge. Daydream. Passion Flower. U.M.M.G. Blood Count. Take the “A” Train. A Flower is a Lovesome Thing. Absinthe [Lament for an Orchid]. Lotus Blossom / Eric Alexander, t-sax; John Di Martino, pno; Boris Kozlov, bs; Lewis Nash, dm; #Raul Midón, voc / Sunnyside Records SSC 4114
I get so many jazz CDs on spec to review that my readers would scarcely believe it, but I turn down roughly three out of four because the music just isn’t all that great, or it’s the current crop of lounge lizard female singers with their whispery voice and come-hither looks that just turn my stomach. But this one grabbed me right away, and held my attention throughout this highly imaginative set of re-arrangements of the music of Billy Strayhorn.
I’m not so sure that Strayhorn is as legendary a name in jazz circles nowadays as he was 30 or 40 years ago. Duke Ellington’s young amanuensis came to him in 1939, at the age of 34, fresh from his classical studies offering his services to Ellington as an arranger and writer. Ellington, who had a rudimentary knowledge of classical form and structure which he had learned from arranger Will Vodery, accepted his offer, and within two years Strayhorn graduated from part-time arranger-composer to being Duke’s substitute pianist and a major force in the new band.
Strayhorn’s gift was to bring elements of the French school of composition and orchestral sound into the Ellington orchestra, and considering the highly individual timbres of Duke’s musicians, with their wah-wah growls and acidic reed sounds, it’s incredible that he accomplished so much. In this new CD, scheduled for release on April 10, pianist-arranger John Di Martino has performed two more miracles: reducing Strayhorn’s sound world to a quartet and rewriting many of his compositions in a way that is original and innovative while still paying tribute to Billy’s original tunes.
The veteran jazz lover will, of course, recognize every title on this album, but casual listeners and/or those who are more embroiled in modern jazz may only recognize nine titles: Lush Life, the only vocal on this album, Rain Check, Star-Crossed Lovers (from Ellington’s suite Such Sweet Thunder), Isfahan (from the Far East Suite), Chelsea Bridge, Daydream, Take the “A” Train, Passion Flower and Lotus Blossom. The album kicks off with Johnny Come Lately, a swinging instrumental written for Ellington’s great 1940-42 band but not a big hit, and immediately you are aware that Di Martino and his talented musicians have thought long and hard about this music and just can’t wait to give you their take on it. They combine enthusiasm with a genuinely creative treatment of every single piece on this disc, and the quartet swings with the kind of bounce and lift that old-timers will associate with such legendary groups as the John Kirby Sextet and the Nat King Cole Trio.
Di Martino’s own piano playing has a great deal in common with Strayhorn’s. He has a light touch with a rich, deep-in-the-keys feeling, just like Strayhorn. (Sometimes, the only reason listeners couldn’t tell if it was Ellington or Strayhorn on piano was the sound of the RCA studio pianos, which tended towards brightness, and the somewhat cramped mono sound of the old 78s.) His style, however, is a bit different from Strayhorn’s. Di Martino plays a bit more in the even softer Bill Evans style, even to the point of using altered and “rootless” chords which Strayhorn never did—but then again, Strayhorn came from an earlier generation that hadn’t yet discovered those chord positions.
I was also consistently impressed by tenor saxist Eric Alexander. He plays here with a consistently warm tone, yet when he goes up in his range he can make his instrument sound like an alto, and his improvisations, though a bit understated by comparison with so many of today’s very busy-sounding sax players, hit just the right note (no pun intended) in each and every tune. Those of you familiar with Ellington’s original recording of Isfahan will recall its slow tempo and the exquisitely sensuous saxophone solo. Here it is taken as a medium-uptempo swinger, which might shock some, but real Ellington historians will recall that this tune was written before the Far East Suite and originally called Elf, and this is a very elfin-like performance.
Chelsea Bridge, like Strayhorn’s other celebrated tune from the early ‘40s, Take the “A” Train, has suffered in a sense from those tunes being (more or less) carved in stone (or at least shellac) on the original RCA Victor records. Indeed, “A” Train became such a fixture in the minds of jazz fans that Duke was almost forced to recreate Ray Nance’s original trumpet solo note-for-note in all later performances of what became his theme song. But real Ellingtonians like myself know that the original (unissued) recording of “A” Train, made a month earlier than the iconic 78 issue, had an entirely different trumpet solo, and that Chelsea Bridge was originally written for—and played by—Ellington’s genius of the bass, Jimmy Blanton, befor3e he had to leave the band due to illness and died young of tuberculosis. And yes, Virginia, there exists an earlier, unissued take of Chelsea Bridge in which Blanton gets a full chorus to himself in the middle of the piece. But Ellington didn’t want to put less skilled bass players through the same torture that his trumpet players did on “A” Train, so he re-recorded the piece after Blanton left, omitting the bass solo chorus entirely and having Strayhorn re-orchestrate the entire piece in a more Ravel-like orchestration. Di Martino cleverly rewrites both pieces himself on this album, slowing Chelsea Bridge down even more until it reaches Bill Evans-ballad-like proportions, and on “A” Train the original melody is virtually unrecognizable until about halfway through the performance, and even then you just get glimmers of and references to it, not a full-blown theme statement. This is, of course, a generalization of what he and his musicians do on these two tracks, but it gives you an indication how much he has though this music through and what deep respect he has for Strayhorn’s achievements. In the former, Alexander’s tenor sax cadenza is a thing of extraordinary beauty as well as brilliantly constructed, an impromptu piece of which any classical composer would be proud.
Daydream becomes a jazz waltz, taken in fact at about the same tempo as Evans’ Waltz for Debby, and once again I am literally in awe of Alexander’s ability to take even the simplest material—and Daydream is one of Strayhorn’s less complex creations—and turn it into a great and interesting piece of music. His tenor playing seems to me to combine elements of several fine sax players of the 1950s and early ‘60s, combining his warmth of tone and very judicious single-note lines with Bird- or Rollins-like runs that never sound out of place but, rather, always add something to his evolving improvisation. Di Martino’s piano solo in this one starts out as single notes played in the lower register à la Lennie Tristano, before moving into somewhat more expansive and somewhat rococo single-note lines in the upper range. Nothing he plays here is startlingly original, but every note and phrase captures your attention because it just “fits” so well. Boris Koslov, with his large, rich tone, adds a brief but superb solo here as well.
The astute listener will note how much Passion Flower sounds like Chelsea Bridge, except that here the quartet plays it just a shade faster, closer to Chelsea Bridge’s original pace. I wondered, however, at the wisdom of programming it so close to its original model. U.M.M.G., which Ellington-ites know is an acronym for Upper Manhattan Medical Group, was one of Strayhorn’s least well-known pieces—its first recording by the Ellington band was originally issued on Coronet, one of those cheapo New Jersey LP labels run by the Mafia (I owned a copy). It emerges as a high-powered swinger, with excellent drumming from Lewis Nash while Di Martino feeds Alexander nice, chunky chords while he takes off on his horn. Alexander’s second solo is, inexplicably, placed in an echo chamber for most of it, but it’s still an effective bit of playing. Blood Count is played slowly, almost out of tempo in the beginning, with a great deal of feeling.
As mentioned earlier, “A” Train is almost unrecognizable at first, opening with drummer Nash playing train-like clickety-clacks while Alexander simulates a train whistle (umm, guys…the A Train was, and is, a SUBWAY train! No whistle. No clickety-clacks. Subway). Eventually the tempo goes way up, much faster than Ellington ever played it, and Di Martino comes flying in with a brilliant single-note solo that keeps climbing up the ladder chromatically, followed by a good Kozlov bass solo (damn, is he good!) and a nice drum solo, substantive but not flashy, by Nash. Finally, near the very end, the band plays the actual melody as a coda. Nice job!
A Flower is a Lovesome Thing is a solo by Di Martino, playing in his Evans-like style but tossing in a few Ellington licks. Absinthe is also slow, but played with a kind of samba beat that really works while the closer, Lotus Blossom, is also given a quasi-Latin tempo but, again, played solo by Di Martino.
Passion Flower is an excellent album, one that I highly suggest your listening to.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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