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In Praise of Ellington - The Pianist




Duke Ellington recorded music for 50 years.


Ask any Ellington fan to pick their favorite album, they will not be able to decide. Ever changing, throughout these 50 years, but always distinctive, what is it that makes Ellington so special ?  His arrangements, his compositions, his ability to gather in his band the best talents and use them at their best ?


One aspect which I find fascinating is his piano playing. His style and sound is instantly recognizable, and forms the "foundation" of many of his recordings: it shows great finesse, inventivity, while having an exciting quality. But most of all, there is "depth" in his playing. A single chord will resonate and touch your soul ! 


This is what Earl  Hines has to say about Ellington (in "The World of Earl Hines"): "I think that what made him so different as a pianist was that he was not just a stylist and an arranger, but a composer, too. I wish he had made more solo records, but I never forget how he could stimulate that band of his. Sometimes you might hear them playing at a dance before he arrived. Then he would come out and sit down at the pinao, and the difference was like night and day. He had a lot of rhythmic drive."


Eddie Lambert, in his book "A Listener's guide", provides a very articulate description of his qualities, in reference to the sessions with Hodges and Edison released as "Back To Back" (and part of "Side By Side"):


"Duke's perfromance here [on "Back To Back"] is one ot the most inventive displays by a jazz soloist in the entire history of jazz. Ellington does not have the virtuosity of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, or Earl Hines, but he has a balance in his musical vocabulary which none of these possesses, as well as invention which surpasses that of any other jazz soloist except Louis Armstrong.


In the piano solos, everything is in proportion - melody, harmony, and rhythm combine in a remarkably articulate language. And Ellington improvises with all three elements, creating new melodic patterns, new rhythmic shapes, and unusual harmonic blends […]


His beautiful touch is also in evidence, as is his subtle way of playing chords with each note given a different weight. Ellington's solo mood on these performances varies from the musing intimacy of Beale Street Blues to the wild, driving conclusion to Stompy Jones. Not the least impressive aspect of Duke's playing on the sessions is his absolute mastery of the blues idiom. It is fascinating too to hear his accompaniments in such an impromptu setting, exactly the right chord, figuration, or riff pattern always effortlessly to hand."


So here is an illustration - perhaps one of my favorites after all. Does it get any better than this ?





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