DUKE ELLINGTON — An Intimate Piano Session (review)

DUKE ELLINGTON — An Intimate Piano Session album cover Album · 2017 · Swing Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
js
Although Duke Ellington has always been highly acclaimed for his composing, arranging and band leadership, you rarely hear much about his piano playing, possibly because there are not that many recordings available that highlight his skills at the keyboard. That unfortunate situation has been somewhat alleviated recently with this latest release of Ellington archival recordings called “An Intimate Piano Session”, which features Duke, mostly by himself on a grand piano, playing tunes that we don’t hear too often from him. Ellington was not a particularly flashy or technical player, but what he plays is often far more interesting than those who might have greater technical skills. In a recent interview, modern piano maverick Matthew Shipp pointed out that as a developing pianist he avoided the 70s triumvirate of Corea, Jarrett and Hancock, and instead focused on earlier players such as Ellington. No doubt Sun Ra’s path less traveled also revealed a strong Duke influence too.

Some of the best cuts on this CD come with the first four tracks. Here we hear the Ellington harmonic formula; ragtime, blues and stride piano mixed with mid-20th century concert hall music, particularly Debussy and Delius. This mix of blues and elegant impressionism became the predominate musical language of the 20th century, and for much of the current century as well. There are many more great cuts on here, particularly a very moving “Melancholia”, and “New World A-Comin”, which shows Duke at his most extravagant and technically flashy as he seems to be channeling piano virtuosos like Rachmaninoff and Chopin. There are couple cuts that feature vocalists Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. Of these two singers, Moore comes across better, as Watkin’s overly dramatic and operatic tenor sounds like period kitsch in today’s scene. This CD closes with a few cuts that feature Ellington on piano with organist Wild Bill Davis and a small rhythm section. Of these cuts, “The Lake” is sublime Latin exotica, but the rest are hardly essential.

There are a couple cuts on here that could have been left off, track 7 and 17 are unexplainable little song segments that serve very little purpose if any. The version of “Satin Doll” features Duke’s well known rap about finger snapping, possibly amusing if you never heard it before, but most long time Ellington fans have heard this routine a hundred times by now. Also, most of the tracks on “An Intimate Piano Session” are not polished performances, Duke stumbles here and there and attempts things he can’t quite pull off, but really good jazz isn’t necessarily about polish, Also, there is a noticeable tape slip on the second take of “Lotus Blossom”. Overall, this is a good CD that provides valuable insight into Ellington’s harmonic language on the piano, but with a little editing, it could be even better.
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