I’ve noticed a minor trend in contemporary jazz over the last year or so, and that involves a concerted effort to separate the great Billy Strayhorn from Duke Ellington, to bring him out into the spotlight so to speak. Strayhorn composed some of the most famous jazz tunes of all time, everything from “Lush Life” to “Take the A Train,” and he spent an enormous chunk of his career playing with Ellington’s bands–he was a pianist, arranger and lyricist as well. Fellow pianist John Di Martino pays tribute to Strayhorn on his new album, Passion Flower, and serves up a rich tutorial on why we should pay more attention to this man’s contribution to jazz, and why he was so important to Ellington.
John di Martino navigates his way through Billy Strayhorn’s “highlights” with his all-star quartet, which also includes sax player Eric Alexander, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Lewis Nash, with crooner Raul Midon sitting in on an intimate version of “Lush Life.” Sounds like a simple line up, but di Martino’s arrangements sound incredibly varied as the band submerges itself into a complicated survey of Strayhorn’s moods–playful, forlorn, excited. This is a lyrical quartet that seems particularly suited to the music, and there isn’t a boring moment to be had.
It helps that John di Martino has had an incredibly long career, possible even longer than Strayhorn who died in 1967 at the young age of 51. Di Martino, in fact, learned to play “Lush Life” on the piano when he was just 15 years old. This gives the pianist considerable perspective into Strayhorn’s compositions and how they evolved over time, and these arrangements capture that span so you’ll know that “Take the A Train” was composed in 1939 and “Blood Count,” which was Strayhorn’s final composition before he died of cancer, was written in 1967. That’s not an easy chore for an arranger.
Billy Strayhorn’s legacy probably needed this modern “straightening out,” since he was happy to dwell in Ellington’s long shadows. Strayhorn often had to share credit with Ellington, even though the latter had to quip, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!”John Di Martino is doing a great service by telling more of this quiet man’s story, and by introducing a new generation to these exquisite tunes.