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John Di Martino: Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn

Dan Bilawsky By

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When esophageal cancer took Billy Strayhorn's life in 1967, his work and legacy rested squarely in the shadow of Duke Ellington's world. More than half a century later, though the two figures remain inextricably linked, Strayhorn's genius has moved past the penumbra of his legendary collaborator and employer, occupying its own clear place in the jazz firmament. Through biography and documentary film, his own lush life has been illuminated. And of equal importance, Strayhorn's compositions continue to bloom in others' hands, like perennials returning time and again to add welcome color and fragrance to the world.

For pianist John Di Martino, Strayhorn's music has always been part of the picture. Initially hooked in his teens, when he encountered "Lush Life" through the lens of Chet Baker and Russ Freeman, he's been a fan ever since. In the ensuing decades, Di Martino has had plenty of opportunities to explore Strayhorn's work in myriad settings, including, in recent times, concerts with multi-reedist Paquito D'Rivera. One such performance, at Flushing Town Hall in New York, inspired this album's executive producer, Neville Grusd, to drive the idea of this tribute forward.

Leading an all-star quartet with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Lewis Nash, Di Martino takes clear pleasure in working through fourteen classics. The quartet swings with verve on "U.M.M.G.," reconfigures "Day Dream" in waltz time, explores the ideals of wafting beauty on the title track, and gives "Take The 'A' Train" a twist through delayed melodic gratification. There's nary a weak spot to be found on the program, and the list of high points runs long. Alexander's absorbing cadenza on "Chelsea Bridge" elevates the ending, guest vocalist Raul Midon's solid work on "Lush Life" adds to the draw of that performance, a gorgeous solo piano take on "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing" finds Di Martino in wonderfully reflective form, and a toned-down sax-and-piano look at Strayhorn's self-penned epitaph, "Blood Count," gets the proper message across. In short, everything is as creatively classy as could be expected with this A-list gathering. A testament to both the durability of Strayhorn's writing and the strengths of Di Martino's art, Passion Flower is pure beauty packaged in sound.

Track Listing

Johnny Come Lately; Lush Life; Rain Check; Star-Crossed Lovers (Pretty Girl); Isfahan (Elf); Chelsea Bridge; Daydream; Passion Flower; U.M.M.G.; Blood Count; Take The A Train; A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing; Absinthe (Lament For An Orchid); Lotus Blossom.

Personnel

John di Martino: piano; Eric Alexander: saxophone, tenor; Boris Kozlov: bass; Lewis Nash: drums; Raul Midon: voice / vocals.

Album information

Title: Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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