Pianist Joe Sealy tells the story that when uncle Edward (Duke) Ellington made his annual visit to Africville (Halifax, N.S.) he’d show the family how to do just about anything with the right style. Duke Ellington’s right style mantra for jazz, as everybody knows, goes “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
As a pianist, and more so playing his favourite instrument—the orchestra—Ellington manifested compositions he conducted, arranged and played in a style that swung all the way from Cotton Club “jungle music,” through the symphony at Carnegie Hall, to sacred oratorios: and all without leaving the right road of jazz.
In 2003, his grandchildren, guitarist Edward II and his sister, the painter Gaye, formed The Duke Ellington Legacy, a nine-piece jazz ensemble dedicated to performing the music of their late great relative. The CD at hand, Single Petal of a Rose is their second successful album on Renma Records.
What I like about this album is that it is totally classic Ellington— a dozen songs from the Ellington/Strayhorn songbook, including the title track, “Lush Life,” “Johnny Come Lately,” “In a Mellow Tone,” and “In My Solitude.” Their melodies are as central to 20th Century music as were, in their day, Beethoven’s 5th, and Mozart’s “Eine Kliene.”
But this album swings in a totally original way as well, because every tune was rearranged either by music director, saxophonist Virginia Mayhew or the dude she brought in as primary arranger, pianist Norman Simmons, a veteran of iconic bands associated with Joe Williams, Carmen McRae, and Betty Carter. The setlist is nicely filled out with a couple of Simmons originals and the 40’s hit, “After Hours,” by Avery Parrish.
Simmons’ own “Home Grown,” and Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local,” are equally arranged to show the glow of Houston Person’s generous tenor. My favourite tune is Mayhew’s Afro-Cuban arrangement of “Johnny Come Lately,” made genuinely jungle by the drum and conga conversation of Paul Wells and Sheila Earley. The vocals of Nancy Reed, one of the four women in the gang, are by turns kittenish and soulful in “Squeeze Me,” and the mellow ballads “Solitude,” and “Mellow Tone.”
Simmons’ piano and Mayhew’s sax frisk together madly on “Upper Manhattan Medical Group,” Tom and Jerrying it around furniture and corners bounded by the lines of Tom DiCarlo’s persuasive bass. Edward II’s guitar sounds good on this number. Di Carlo’s bass is also outstandingly classic on Ellington’s “Night Train (aka H.G.Lucky Local). Horns–trumpet and trombone in the hands of Jami Dauber and Noah Bless boldly daub fresh colours onto the canvas of this outstanding set of tunes.
The Duke Ellington Legacy’s, Single Petal of a Rose is jazz that’s classic because it lives in the right style, on the right side of the Duke’s other mantra about music: There are two kinds of music–good music, and the other kind.
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