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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf



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DUKE ELLINGTON

Piano in the Foreground

Essential Jazz Classics EJC 55551

 

 

1. I Can't Get Started
2. Cong-go
3. Body and Soul
4. Blues for Jerry
5. Fontainebleau Forest
6. Summertime
7. It's Bad to be Forgotten
8. A Hundred Dreams Ago
9. So
10. Searching (Pleading For Love)
11. Springtime in Africa
12. Lotus Blossom
13. All the Things You Are (take 1)
14. All the Things You Are (take 2)
15. Piano Improvisation No. 1
16. Piano Improvisation No. 2
17. Piano Improvisation No. 3
18. Piano Improvisation No. 4
19. Dancers in Love
20. Prelude to a Kiss
21. In a Sentimental Mood

Duke Ellington - Piano
Aaron Bell - Bass (tracks 1-12)
Jimmy Woode - Bass (tracks 13-18)
Wendell Marshall - Bass (tracks 19-21)
Sam Woodyard - Drums (tracks 1-18)
Butch Ballard - Drums (tracks 19-21)

 

I recently reviewed a 1960 album entitled Piano in the Background which makes a kind of pair with this album. The former CD presented Duke Ellington with his entire orchestra, but this CD presents the Duke in a piano trio setting. You might think that this would put the spotlight closer on Ellington, but most of the album is rather low-key, tending to hide Duke's light under a bushel.

Perhaps this reflects Billy Strayhorn's comment about his long-term colleague: "Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is the orchestra". Or it may just be that Ellington was here using understatement instead of performing as if he was an extrovert solo pianist. Whatever the reason, the playing on most on this album is fairly subdued, and the recording doesn't help to put much intensity into the performances. It might have helped if Sam Woodyard's drums were more prominent but they are very much in the background. However, Aaron Bell's bass is clearly miked and this turns many tracks into duo performances between piano and double bass.

As expected, the album shows Duke's heritage in the stride tradition very clearly, with a strong left hand often helping the rhythm along. As with his orchestra, Duke's right-hand comments are often brief, with short but percussive phrases, leaving many breathing spaces. He can also play rhapsodically on tunes like his own composition Fontainebleau Forest and Billy Strayhorn's Lotus Blossom, which he caresses with loving care.

Most tracks are Ellingtonian numbers but he also tackles jazz standards like I Can't Get Started and Summertime. The latter is given an experimental treatment, with stuttering bass and drums plus out-of-tempo piano. It is jagged and almost surreal, with a discordant ending. This is possibly the only track where Duke takes daring liberties with the tune. Mostly he stays close to the melody.

These were by no means Duke's first examples of a willingness to show himself in the glaring light of a piano trio or even duo. His duets with bassist Jimmy Blanton in 1940 are famous, and he recorded in trios in 1945 (with Junior Raglin and Sonny Greer) and 1953 (with Wendell Marshall and Butch Ballard). As bonus tracks, this album adds two trio sessions: some of the 1953 recordings and some from 1957 (with Jimmy Woode replacing Aaron Bell as bassist).

These extra tracks seem more animated than those on the original LP. The two versions of All the Things You Are exhibit Ellington's interest in varied chords, although the bowed bass in the second take seems out of sympathy and out of tune. The Piano Improvisations include an economical piece with a marching beat, an easy-going blues (complete with Woodyard offbeats), and a couple of tracks reminiscent of James P. Johnson.

The last three tracks are also exhilarating, including the finger-clicking Dancers in Love, a pensive Prelude to a Kiss, and a bright In a Sentimental Mood. In some ways this album is disappointing because it shows Duke in a rather less stimulating mode than in Piano in the Background. Yet, being an Ellington recording, it is still worth adding to your collection as an insight into the greatest genius of jazz.

Tony Augarde
www.augardebooks.co.uk



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