Friday, April 14, 2017

Storyville Releases an Album of Duke Ellington as Piano Soloist

Exactly one week ago, Storyville Records, that wonderful independent jazz label in Europe, released the first commercial issue of some major solo work by pianist Duke Ellington. These were recordings made at Media Sound Recording Studios in Manhattan, all on August 25, 1972, at a time when Ellington was performing with a small group at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. To put that date in perspective, the solo recordings were made about half a year before the last three performances that Ellington gave with his orchestra in March of 1973. Ellington would die on May 24, 1974.

The title of the album is An Intimate Piano Session; and, while Ellington is joined by two of his band singers, Anita Moore and Tony Watkins, for a few of the tracks, the real gems are to be found in his solos. (Actually, one of the tracks has an unidentified drummer. In addition, there is a recording of Ellington’s voice at the end of the first part of “A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives,” accusing the piano of being “too honest” because “it shows all my flaws!”) Storyville then filled out the CD with four tracks taken from an Ellington band concert given 1969 in Rotterdam.

“Intimate” is definitely the operative adjective for this album. It is unclear why these tracks languished in a vault for so long. Perhaps those in charge of the vault felt that listeners would only find those flaws that Ellington had cited. Perhaps there was a fear that these tracks would detract from Ellington’s goal to elevate jazz to the status of an art form. However, there is a spontaneity in these recordings that seldom came to the surface in the “standard” legacy of Ellington’s commercial recordings. Also, many of the selections received relatively little public exposure; and some of them even convey the impression of products of work in progress.

The longest selection on the album, however, is decidedly not work in progress. This is a take on “New World a-Comin’,” which runs close to ten minutes in duration. Those who know their Ellington know that this was the piano solo he took at his 1965 Concert of Sacred Music, the first of his so-called “Sacred Concerts.” When this concert was given at Grace Cathedral here in San Francisco, that selection was Ellington’s way of focusing his religious devotion on hope for a better day. There is a certain poignancy to his 1972 return to this solo, since that was a time when he could look back on how much had been achieved since 1965 while recognizing how much more still needed to be done. Anyone listening to this track today is likely to feel exactly the same way.

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