1 February 2020

Pete Recommends…Duke Ellington – Ellington Plays Strayhorn

Duke Ellington

Ellington Plays Strayhorn

Recently, as part of a lecture series about jazz musicians who deserve to be better known, I decided to talk about Billy Strayhorn and his role in the Duke Ellington organisation from 1939 to his death in 1967. As soon as I looked to my collection I found that part of my task would be very easy. This invaluable CD from the Indigo company covers his output with the band, apart from non-Ellington material, from 1939-46. There are brief but informative notes from Joop Visser, whom you may associate with the excellent Properbox booklets.

For anyone writing arrangements and interested in the Ellington scores this is an essential aid. Alongside major classics like Take the A Train and Chelsea Bridge you have small group masterpieces such as Day Dream, written for the alto saxophone of Johnny Hodges and Noir Bleu for the clarinet of Barney Bigard. Other outstanding scores for the whole band include Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’, Balcony Serenade and, a favourite of mine, Johnny Come Lately. Sometimes Billy is the pianist, notably on Chelsea Bridge, Raincheck and Noir Bleu. The CD also includes two examples of Billy and the Duke together at the piano, which are very successful.

If you enjoy the items on this CD you will want to go on to check out Billy’s work over the rest of his life, which includes a host of examples of the arranger’s craft at its best. I would also recommend his beautiful waltz, Lotus Blossom and his difficult but much-admired song, Lush Life. I once heard this performed at a session in Brighton as an unaccompanied alto sax solo by Pete King. Stunning!

[Ellington Plays Strayhorn was issued on Indigo CD IGOCD 2138]

Peter Batten

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