Pianist/composer/arranger/producer John J. DiMartino
is a first-call veteran of the New York City jazz scene. This multi-recorded artist has long been a favorite of singers for his gigantic ears and intuitive, uncluttered playingrare gifts which also enhance any instrumentalist he accompanies or arranges. All of these talents inform DiMartino's splendid Billy Strayhorn
tribute, Passion Flower
, where he is joined by his ever-superb colleagues: Eric Alexander
on tenor saxophone, drummer Lewis Nash
and bassist Boris Kozlov
. The wonderful vocalist Raul Midon
sings one tune, a spare and soulful reading of "Lush Life."
DiMartino is a fine musician who sounds less interested in technical pyrotechnics than in mining a melody for its original intentwhether he's arranging or playing, he lets the essence of a song speak for itself. The result is that, among the many eulogies to Strayhorn's genius, this one is unique in its fresh and straightforward interpretations. Passion Flower
contains fourteen classics, from the jubilant "Johnny Come Lately" to the meditative "Lotus Blossom." There's an intriguing use of tempo in the relaxed bossa of "Star-Crossed Lovers," the happy waltz of "Daydream," and the sultry bolero of "Passion Flower," complete with mallets. Alexander caps the languid "Chelsea Bridge" with a passionate a cappella solo, and when Kozlov plays the familiar melody of "Isfahan," it takes on a lighthearted quality much like the mischievous piano quotes scattered throughout ("The Sailor's Hornpipe" on "Rain Check"?).
There are rich mood shadings here as well, as when DiMartino respectfully opens Strayhorn's last composition, "Blood Count," which its creator finished in the hospital (he died of cancer at 51). There's an infinitely tender piano rendition of "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing," and the lovely "Absinthe" is arranged as a kind of veiled, misterioso melody that suddenly vanishes. It should also be noted that, as always, Nash supplies unfailing taste and swing throughout.
A special word about the most-played Strayhorn tune of all: as the unofficial theme for the Ellington band, "Take the A Train" has been covered so often that even non-jazz fans can identify it. But among all the many interpretations, this might be the one that most resembles a genuine train experience. DiMartino suggested that Nash and Alexander "channel two guys busking in the subway," and, even without any tunnel echoes, they actually do just that. Meanwhile, the bass pounds like a speeding train, the sax mimics its whistle, and, with some random piano accents and cymbal crashes, the tune truly evokes a rumbling, twisting subway ride, while never losing its music.
DiMartino's Passion Flower
is a remarkable achievement: beautifully arranged and played, unfussy and deeply moving, it stands out on the crowded shelf of Strayhorn tributes.
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.