Various Artists – Rare Beauty – Intimate Gems of Duke Ellington

Rare Beauty – Intimate Gems of Duke Ellington
Various Artists
(Koch Jazz – 2000)
by John Barrett

His compositions were called “mychildren”; if they didn’t catch on he’d file them away, revisiting them years later. Duke Ellington had a vast catalog, added to constantly; Nat Hentoff wondered “why younger jazzmen have not explored the remarkable reservoir of early Ellington tunes.” On this centennial tribute, many folks explore… all in their own unique ways. Joel Forrester walks gently, on the rightly-named “Lost in Meditation”. Tense at first, the harmonies turn warm, and the left hard marches strong. Calling on a mournful soprano, Philip Johnston strolls nicely on “To Know You Is to Love You”. A bass walks beside him, and all is well; Norma Winstone pleads “Come Sunday” like the hymn it is. “Fleurette Africaine” comes awash in atmosphere: percussive groans, thrums, and scrapes beneath a drawing-room piano. From the duo Rhythm & Brass,it’s unlike any Ellington performance, yet shares his love for exotic blends and indelible moods. In that regard, this could be the truest tribute of all.

Like much of Duke’s work, many tunes are geared to a single voice. John Handy is Mr. Smooth for “Don’t You Know I Care”, with his alto rolling in waves. Rosalind Ilett tells “A Hundred Dreams from Now” in broad chords; Duke would do it differently, but it couldn’t be warmer than this. Ernie Krivda brings a creamy reed to “Volupte”, trading theme with Bill Dobbins’ piano. (Bill starts mellow, then turns funky … he’s a joy.) Claire Daly is perfect for “Melancholia”: her gritty baritone charms like Ben Webster, and ripples with romance. Diane Witherspoon is “Kind of Lonesome”: with clear warbling voice, she is the essence of beautifuldespair. And Joel Forrester concludes as he started, making “Black Butterfly” a kind of salon piece. Like many of the performers, he doesn’t show off, letting the tune speak with it’s own voice. That is the nature of Ellington, and the rare beauty his music conveys.