Duke Ellington: Solitude

Ellington Indigos is one of my favorite Ellington albums. Recorded right after Such Sweet Thunder, it was designed to show the "dance band" side of the Ellington orchestra. But it is so much more: In arranging a program of standards mixing his songs with those of other composers, Ellington created wonderful new settings that were richly-colored and easily accessible. When it was recorded in 1957, stereo recording was still new (in fact, Indigos may have been the first stereo Ellington album). Like other albums of this period, there were occasional problems with the portable stereo recorders which necessitated using different takes on the mono and stereo versions of the LP. One track, "The Sky Fell Down" never appeared on the stereo LP, and in 2 other cases, not only were the solos different between the mono and stereo, but the orchestrations changed, too! After 50+ years with various tracks turning up here and there, the Jazzbeat CD above includes all of the music recorded for this album. It's about time.

While Ellington wrote several concertos for his musicians, he seldom wrote features for himself. "Solitude" is a wonderful exception to the rule. Ellington starts alone at the piano with a gentle, out-of-tempo rumination on the theme. After awhile, he adds a simple, slow stride pattern, but soon breaks away from the straight time for more rubato thoughts. He uses single note lines to convey loneliness, and as the solo continues, we wonder if the whole track will be an extended piano solo. Then with a strong entrance on the theme, he brings in the rhythm section. The saxes pick up the melody with Ellington offering sharply voiced chords in contrast. The brass comes in on the bridge and the arrangement continues to build even as Ellington moves away from his melody. The band kicks in hard as the arrangement reaches its climax. Then suddenly, Ellington breaks into a flashy arpeggio that runs up and down the keyboard, and there is a solo piano cadenza that brings the volume and mood back to its quiet beginnings. Ellington caught a lot of heat from the critics when he crossed into the sacred classical music area, but this recording shows the pianist in a seldom-seen context. Far from being pretentious, it is simply a beautifully-realized rendition of a classic song. I loved it when I first heard it 30 years ago, and I still love it today.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Solitude

"Solitude," which Ellington wrote in just 20 minutes under deadline pressure, was a key component of Duke's playlist from 1934 up to his death in 1974, when Ella Fitzgerald sang it movingly at his funeral. The tune has, of course, lived on to this day, but in the wrong hands can sound overly sentimental or wooden. Williams' version, on the other hand, seems at times to open up the standard to new possibilities, while also remaining refreshingly in the tradition. "Higher Standards" indeed, as Williams' first all-standards CD is entitled.

Williams begins unaccompanied and rubato, with headlong runs and filigreed arpeggios. Upon introducing the melody, she heartily embellishes it, going into stride mode for good measure. When Captein and Brown make their first entry, Williams reenters the theme with a quickly passing allusion to "Four" by Miles Davis, before briefly adopting Ellington's keyboard style, only to surge off into an up-tempo solo that we can imagine Duke would have "loved madly." The pianist's two-handed swing-fest contains blues-tinged angularity, technically impressive parallel lines drawn from her early classical training, her always welcome block chords, and intriguing left-hand adornments. Williams' exchanges with Brown delve into stride and Monkish inflections, and even include a quote from "Exactly Like You." The out-chorus is a take-no-prisoners romp that unexpectedly evokes Count Basie in its very last notes.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Sathima Bea Benjamin (with Duke Ellington): Solitude

This recording sat unreleased for 45 years -- and only came to light when writer David Hajdu secured a tape while researching his Billy Strayhorn biography, Lush Life. Benjamin had introduced Ellington to the music of Dollar Brand (later Abdullah Ibrahim), and Duke arranged for recording sessions for both artists, with hopes that they would be issued on Frank Sinatra's Reprise label. The Dollar Brand LP came out to acclaim and helped establish that musician as a preeminent pianist, but Sinatra reportedly nixed the Benjamin tracks because he doubted their commercial prospects.

Fans may come to this performance because of the novelty of Ellington serving as a sideman, but the real draw here is Benjamin. Ellington does not solo, and even his comping is obscured by the pizzicato violin of Asmussen. But Benjamin offers a beautiful, heartfelt version of this classic ballad that brings out all of its lovelorn ambiance. No frills here, just an intense reading of a great song -- and a version that must have pleased the composer enough to entice him to join in.

January 23, 2008 · 0 comments


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