Saturday, June 9, 2012

In review---Swing You Madly

Duke Ellington Legacy
With Houston Person
Single Petal of a Rose
Renma Recordings

Virginia Mayhew Quartet
With Wycliffe Gordon
Mary Lou Williams--The Next 100 Years
Renma Recordings

I didn’t grow up listening to Duke Ellington, but I heard it playing in the background of my childhood.  In 2008, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Edward Ellington, Jr. for a regional arts publication.  And I also witnessed the legacy band in concert--an enjoyable evening.  While Billy Strayhorn’s A-Train doesn’t appear on Duke Ellington Legacy’s Single Petal of a Rose, Lush Life (Strayhorn), Squeeze Me (Ellington), and In My Solitude (Ellington) float off this recording, bringing both nostalgic sheen and revitalized interpretations.

While no musician, not even family, could ever recreate Duke Ellington, the composer-bandleader’s elegance shines in these modern interpretations.  The ballads Lush Life and In My Solitude radiate with Nancy Reed on vocal duty.  Similar to the crew of musicians here, an ensemble, not a big band, Reed dishes out love with those heartwarming melodies.  Norman Simmons (band’s arranger and pianist) delivers a luxurious performance of the titular song, after giving a brief introduction.  Then the band kicks into a rousing rendition of Happy Go Lucky Local with plenty of soloists (something the Ellington band excelled at and always some intriguing musical characters).

Since I’m not an expert on Ellington, I did a little research on Billy Strayhorn, 16 years Ellington’s junior.  I felt curious about the song titles, Blood Count and Upper Manhattan Medical Group, which Strayhorn composed right before he died of cancer.  Neither song brings even a touch of grief to the album, despite the titles.  After Hours reminds me of the sensual scenes in 1950s detective movies, Love You Madly swings hard and the Latinized version of Johnny Come Lately shouts “party!” I award kudos to these hardworking and talented musicians.

Unlike the legacy of Duke Ellington, which any of us has come across, the legacy of pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams would be new to many of us outside of the jazz arena.   Born in 1910, Williams would have composed and performed music during the big band era and while I have not heard of Williams until receiving saxophonist Virginia Mayhew’s tribute album The Next 100 Years, the liner notes mention that her compositions were performed by big bands.   The liner notes also refer to Mary Lou Williams as a woman Duke Ellington.

The tribute album features Mayhew on tenor saxophone, Ed Cherry (guitar), Harvie S (bass), Andy Watson (drums) and special guest Wycliffe Gordon (trombone).  While Mayhew is a fine sax player, I would have like to have heard songs performed on piano.  This has more to do with the fact that piano is a favorite instrument of mine and my ears grow tired after listening to an album featuring robust saxophone.  I will say that Wycliffe brings personality to his trombone which ranges from sweet to growling, and some wah-wah tossed in for good measure.  I especially enjoyed Cancer (Zodiac Suite) and What’s Your Story Morning Glory. The band’s efforts prove solid and I can hear the musicians’ passion for this material.  And if you’re purchasing the Duke Ellington Legacy album, pick up the Mary Lou Williams tribute album too.  We might be 100 years too late to give Williams the recognition she so rightly deserves.,,

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