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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Don Mather, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf, Glyn Pursglove

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Retrospection: The Piano Sessions

Lonehill Jazz LHJ 10369



  1. Who Knows
  2. Retrospection
  3. B Sharp Blues
  4. Passion Flower
  5. Dancers In Love
  6. Reflections In D
  7. Melancholia
  8. Prelude To A Kiss
  9. In A Sentimental Mood
  10. Things Ain't What They Used To Be
  11. All Too Soon
  12. Janet
  13. Kinda Dukish
  14. Montevideo
  15. December Blue
  16. All The Things You Are (Version 1)
  17. All The Things You Are (Version 2)
  18. Piano Improvisation No.1
  19. Piano Improvisation No.2
  20. Piano Improvisation No.3
  21. Piano Improvisation No.4
  22. New World A-Comin'
  23. Variations On Mood Indigo
Duke Ellington - Piano
Wendell Marshall - Bass (tracks 1-15)
Butch Ballard - Drums (tracks 1, 3-5, 8-12)
Dave Black - Drums (tracks 13-15)
Jimmy Woode - Bass (tracks 16-21)
Sam Woodyard - Drums (tracks 16-21)
Ralph Collier - Conga (track 14)

Duke Ellington was the leader and driving force of perhaps the most innovative, prolific and long-lasting big band in history. Like several other great bandleaders (e.g. Count Basie, Earl Hines), Ellington led the band from the piano. But he made comparatively few recordings spotlighting his gifts as a pianist, even though he was a fine and influential pianist (his disciples included Thelonious Monk and Stan Tracey). This album gives us all Duke's piano trio recordings from 1953 to 1957, with three tunes as duets between piano and bass, and a couple of extra solo piano tracks.

The Duke's collaborator Billy Strayhorn famously said: "Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is the orchestra". This was true, in that Ellington's piano playing was usually subsumed to the needs of his orchestra. Even when he was playing solos with his band, they were part of the overall picture rather than an ego trip. Yet we should not underestimate his pianistic abilities, which began with a strong inclination towards stride techniques that remained part of his style throughout his life. His stride origins are clear here on such tracks as Dancers in Love. He also played very clear lines with his right hand, which came through clearly on his big-band recordings and which are evident on this album.

You can also hear some of Duke's trademark effects, such as a twinkling downward arpeggio which he often used as decoration. You can also hear the rich variety of chordings which distinguished Ellington from many lesser jazzmen. And this album is blessed with the romanticism which was at the heart of much Ducal music.

Duke's affinity with the blues can be heard on several tracks. B Flat Blues is rather like Kinda Dukish (the traditional prelude to Rockin' in Rhythm) but it proves that Ellington liked to vary his chords. Another side of Duke - his lyricism - is audible on several tracks, notably the thoughtful Reflections in D and the beautiful All Too Soon. Montevideo has a Latin-American flavour, with Dave Black's drums prominent. The two versions of All The Things You Are provide evidence for Ellington's varying approaches to a theme, while the four Piano Improvisations are all very different, exploring a wide variety of styles including a bolero, a blues and an exercise in stride.

The last two tracks are piano solos. New World A-Comin' is a rather poor recording of a 1966 public performance in France of a piece that Duke first played in 1943. The short Variations on Mood Indigo comes from a 1947 episode of Nat "King" Cole's radio show. It again illustrates Ellington's adventurous spirit with chords.

The subtitle of this CD ("The Piano Sessions") is misleading, because Ellington recorded several other sessions with just double bass or rhythm section - most notably his duets in 1940 with bassist Jimmy Blanton (although the bass was given more prominence there). One other pedantic point: the sleeve-notes are wrong to say that Aaron Bell was on drums for Ellington's 1966 trio session. The drummer was actually Sam Woodyard. Aaron Bell is a bass-player.

These minor flaws aside, this CD is a useful reminder of the piano skills of someone whose dedication to his orchestra tended to overshadow his own considerable skill as a pianist.

Tony Augarde 

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