Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Duke Ellington,
An Intimate Piano Session

Duke Ellington. An Intimate Piano Session. Storyville Records. 2017.

Storyville’s latest Ellington release includes sixteen recordings from the “stockpile,” music recorded at Ellington’s expense and never released in his lifetime. Ten of the recordings are of the piano player (as he called himself), alone at the keyboard. One is with a mystery drummer (“Loco Madi”); five are with the band’s singers, Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. These sixteen recordings, all made on August 25, 1972, are a considerable addition to the body of Ellington’s work as solo pianist and accompanist. There is gold here, beginning with “The Anticipation,” the previously missing first section of The Uwis Suite, a work Ellington wrote for his 1972 residency at the University of Wisconsin. “The Anticipation” establishes a mood of urbane introspection that runs through many of these performances. We hear Ellington taking liberties with tempo and harmony in his compositions (“The Single Petal of a Rose”) and Billy Strayhorn’s (“Lotus Blossom”). He plays (twice) a relative rarity, Strayhorn’s “A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives.” Most striking to me is “Melancholia,” first recorded in 1953. The deliberate hesitations and silences in this performance recall Thelonious Monk’s 1957 recording of “I Should Care.” It’s the best “Melancholia” I’ve heard.

Ellington never liked arranging for singers, but he excelled as an accompanist, so it’s a treat to hear him as the sole support for Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. Moore is persuasive in her ballad performances (“I’m Afraid” and “I Didn’t Know About You”). Watkins is commanding in “The Blues Ain’t,” but in “Come Sunday” and “My Mother, My Father and Love,” his heavy vibrato is just not to my taste. I’m hardly alone: in 1973, an audience booed Watkins and prompted a disgusted Ellington to cut short a concert.

And speaking of concerts, happier ones: the last four performances on this CD are encores from the November 7, 1969 concert released last year as Rotterdam 1969. Most of the band has left the stage, but Ellington keeps going, with Wild Bill Davis (organ), Victor Gaskin (bass), and Rufus Jones (drums). Here too there is gold. Ellington announces ”The Lake” as a piece this quartet had never before performed. “Satin Doll” has an especially exuberant version of the finger-snapping bit. And in “Just Squeeze Me,” the interplay of the two keyboards goes on for chorus after chorus. “I like that, one more time,” Ellington says, again and again. So much good feeling in that hall.

A recent biography of Ellington trades in cheap suggestions that he was, well, a lazy and irresponsible fellow. At the time of the 1972 recordings on this release, in his seventy-third year, Ellington was nearing the end of a four-week engagement with a small band at New York’s Rainbow Grill, playing two sets a night, with Sundays off. He twice went into the studio during that engagement to record for the stockpile. On a Sunday off, he traveled to Boston for a concert with the full band. On a Saturday, he traveled to Tarrytown, New York, for a benefit concert with a starting time of 6:00 p.m. — early enough to get to the Rainbow Grill for the night’s first set. We should all be so lazy.

The program:

The Anticipation : Le Sucrier Velours (1) : Lotus Blossom (1) : A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives (1) : I’m Afraid (Of Loving You Too Much) : I Didn’t Know About You : Loco Madi : Lotus Blossom (2) : New World A-Comin’ : Le Sucrier Velours (2) : Melancholia: The Single Petal of a Rose : The Blues Ain’t : Come Sunday : My Mother, My Father and Love : A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives (2) : Black Swan : The Lake : Satin Doll : Just Squeeze Me

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)

[Ken Vail’s Duke’s Diary, Part Two (2002) has the details of Ellington’s itinerary, 1950–1974.]

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