Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Duke Ellington Legacy: Single Petal of a Rose

Renma Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Single Petal of a Rose

Duke Ellington was the man in the1920s and ’30s. He grew in stature during the big band years, and still is considered to be the most important figure in the world of jazz. No surprise, then, that we’ve had (and still have) numerous tribute groups that use Duke’s compositions as the focal point for their music library. The Duke Ellington Legacy is one such unit.

This group, a nonet, boasts some special attributes. Ellington’s grandson, Edward Kennedy Ellington II, is the guitarist; Virginia Mayhew, whose specialty is developing tribute projects related to famous jazz icons, played a key roll in the creation of this band and is one of its two tenor sax artists; Houston Person, a living legend himself‚ is the other tenor player; and pianist Norman Simmons has accompanied jazz vocalists Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Joe Williams and Betty Carter. These artists are supported by vocalist Nancy Reed, trumpeter Jami Dauber, trombonist Noah Bless, bassist Tom DiCarlo and percussionists Paul Wells and Sheila Early, who split duties.

Most of the tunes here are Ellington or Billy Strayhorn compositions; the exceptions are “Home Grown,” by Simmons, and “After Hours,” by Erskine Hawkins. 

Although several of the other tracks are quite familiar — “In My Solitude,” In a Mellow Tone,” “Lush Life” and “Squeeze Me” — the lesser-known compositions highlight this release. “Happy Go Lucky Local” (which later became “Night Train”), “Johnny Come Lately,” “Blood Count,” “Love You Madly” and “Lotus Blossom” weren’t big hits with the general public, but their innovative musical quality is outstanding. And, as far as I’m concerned, “Single Petal of a Rose” remains one of the most gorgeous ballads ever written. The absence of lyrics may explain why it didn’t receive the attention it deserved.

Every member of this group obviously loves Ellington’s music; it shows in the stellar arrangements from Simmons and Mayhew, along with their interpretations of each melody. The result is Ellington “modernized‚” but his unique touch is retained. This is traditional jazz at its finest, with unforgettable melodic lines and solo work of the highest quality. 

As for vocalist Nancy Reed, Duke would have loved her.

I’ve never heard a better interpretation of Ellington’s music than that provided by this wonderful array of artists.

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