Monday, July 16, 2018

Mike Greensill’s Ellington Afternoon at O1C

Mike Greensill (from his Old First Concerts event page)

Yesterday afternoon at the Old First Presbyterian Church. jazz pianist Mike Greensill made his annual visit to Old First Concerts (O1C). This was about a month and a half earlier than his usual Labor Day visit; but he explained to the audience that he had an out-of-town booking for Labor Day Weekend this year. This year’s concert was entitled The Art of the Duo, and the only other performer was Joe Cohen alternating between alto and tenor saxophones.

According to the original announcement, Greensill had planned to devote the program primarily to the music of Duke Ellington; but I predicted that he would not resist the temptation to include some of his own compositions. At the performance itself there were six Ellington selections, while Greensill kept his own pieces down to four. Between them they made up for the lion’s share of the fourteen tunes Greensill and Cohen presented.

Most striking was Greensill’s decision to include a selection representing a close tie to San Francisco. The first of Ellington’s three “sacred” concerts, released on an RCA album entitled A Concert of Sacred Music, was written for performance in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in honor of its opening in 1965. Greensill and Cohen gave an instrumental account of “Come Sunday,” which was part of that concert, although it had originally been written over ten years earlier for the extended concert suite Black, Brown and Beige as one of the parts of the “Black” movement.

As with all of the Ellington selections, both players respected tradition by beginning with a clear statement of the tune. Cohen tended to take the first round of improvisations. Greensill then took over with his approaches before the two of them wrapped things up with an equally clear recapitulation. For the most part the attentive listener always knew where the tune was, but both players knew how to take their improvisation work into adventurous territory. As in the past, Greensill “seasoned” many of the songs with his own vocal work; but “Satin Doll” was the only Ellington tune to get a vocal treatment.

As usual, Greensill’s own songs were imaginatively playful, often with titles whose wordplay reflected the rhetoric of his keyboard work. He revisited “Puce,” which he called a parody of “Tangerine,” this time introducing it with a bizarre (and possibly true) account of the etymology of “puce.” “Puce” (the song) is not so much a parody as it is an example of invention based on what Frank Tirro calls a “silent theme” (in this case the tune for “Tangerine”). Indeed, the theme is not quite as silent as those that formed the basis for some of Charlie Parker’s classic tunes; but Greensill’s approach tends to be more playful.

Of the selections that were not by either Ellington or Greensill, the most memorable were Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight” and Earl Hines’ “You Can Depend on Me.”