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

Jack Bowers By

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Composer / arranger Billy Strayhorn was barely twenty-three years old when he first met bandleader Duke Ellington, an encounter that would lead to a collaboration that lasted more than half of Strayhorn's life. During that time, Strayhorn wrote some of the Ellington orchestra's most acclaimed and enduring songs including "Lotus Blossom," "Chelsea Bridge," "Isfahan" and, most notably, the jazz classic "Take the 'A' Train," as well as others for which Ellington claimed partial credit ("Daydream," "Something to Live For") and a handful ascribed wholly to Ellington (as for example, "Satin Doll").

Even though it was sometimes downplayed and even overlooked during his long tenure with Ellington, Strayhorn's special brilliance did not escape the ears of fellow Pennsylvanian and veteran pianist John di Martino, who has enlisted an all-star quartet to salute the man Ellington called "my right arm and my left arm" by performing fourteen of Strayhorn's exquisite compositions. While the term "all-star" may be over-used, it unequivocally describes Di Martino's partners in the quartet: tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Lewis Nash, each of whom is an acknowledged luminary and well-known mainstay on the jazz scene in the States and around the world.

While there may not be adequate stylistic footprints to set Di Martino apart from a host of gifted contemporary pianists, he certainly plays as well as any of them, which is perhaps as apt an endorsement as is needed. Alexander, meanwhile, is his usual robust and resourceful self, while Koslov and Nash are veritable rhythmic machines, urging the group insistently forward and soloing persuasively whenever the need arises. There is one vocal, by the suitably impassioned Raul Midon on "Lush Life" (written when Strayhorn was fifteen years old). Di Martino goes it alone on "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" and the closing "Lotus Blossom."

Elsewhere, the quartet dances easily through a laundry list of Strayhorn favorites from "Johnny Come Lately" and "Rain Check" to "Isfahan," Chelsea Bridge," "U.M.M.G," "Blood Count" and of course, "The 'A' Train," with Alexander proving as impressive on ballads as he is on flag-wavers and Di Martino perfectly at home in any milieu. Although Strayhorn could burn with the best of them, ballads were always his strong suit, a premise that is clearly borne out on such masterworks as "Chelsea Bridge," "Daydream," "Passion Flower" and "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," which bring out the best in Di Martino and Alexander as well. In fact, everything on the tantalizing menu seems to suit their hearty appetites, raising Passion Flower well above the norm and offering more than an hour of bright and pleasurable listening to one of jazz's definitive masters.

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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