Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The real Duke underneath

From the beginning Duke Ellington had style and a strong sense of himself; as a child, according to Terry Teachout's excellent biography A Life of Duke Ellington, he "carried himself like a prince of the realm." Once he became Duke, with his own band, everything was subsumed by elegance and refinement; nearly every description of his ensemble includes the words "style" and "sophistication". This is apparent in the famous picture William P. Gottlieb took of Duke in his dressing room at The Paramount in New York in September 1946.

Library of Congress
The outward trappings are obvious - Gordon Parks even took a photo of his many ties - but there's just as much elegance and sophistication in the music itself, composed and arranged, ofttimes, by Ellington himself or by his loyal lieutenant Billy Strayhorn. Polish, style, grace and elegance speak to outward beauty, and we're naturally curious, as we are about Mozart or Flaubert or Fragonard, about what's underneath the surface. That's the promise of this new Storyville album An Intimate Piano Session. On August 25, 1972, two years before his death, Duke recorded a very simple and heartfelt album of songs, many of which held a deep meaning for him. Most of the tracks are just Ellington himself at the piano, and that's such an exposed, open, vulnerable place to be.

Here's his first take of Billy Strayhorn's lovely Lotus Blossom:

Ellington has said that Billy Strayhorn loved to listen to him play Lotus Blossom; it's the last track on ...And His Mother Called Him Bill, Ellington's 1967 memorial for Strayhorn, who died that year. The emotional impact of that track is astonishing. This album is full of such personal items; My Mother, My Father and Love is one, which looks back on a largely happy childhood and deep, deep feelings of family and connection and love. There are more extroverted songs from the 1972 concert as well, with contributions from band singers Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. Storyville has filled out the album with four songs by Ellington's band from a 1969 concert in Holland. This project has given us a glimpse, underneath the surface elegance, of a great artist and a great (though, of course, flawed) person.

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