Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker review of Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington includes the outlandish charge that Duke “played no better than O.K. piano.” Evidence to the contrary is presented here in “Dancers in Love,” “Reflections in D,” and “Melancholia.” All are from the 1953 album, Piano Reflections, which was Duke’s first album-length outing at the helm of a trio, and one that was as revelatory as it was reflective..
Money Jungle, the notorious, tension-filled session that Ellington made with Charles Mingus and Max Roach in 1962, secured him a lasting renown with post-modernists, but Piano Reflections is the truer of his trio outings. Originally titled, The Duke Plays Ellington, the album’s 15 titles make for a document that’s as personal as anything he ever recorded. Sprightly, up-tempo originals which revel in Ellington’s puckish sense of humor are juxtaposed with somber mood pieces and ballads that mirror the lonely, isolated man depicted in Duke.
The Ellington specialist Mark Tucker died before he’d written extensively on Duke’s middle and late career periods. He edited The Duke Ellington Reader and authored Duke Ellington: The Early Years, both indispensable. His liner notes for the reissue of Piano Reflections hint at what a loss Tucker’s premature death has meant to Ellington scholarship.
Of “Reflections in D” and “Melancholia,” he writes, “Both pieces point to the difficulty—futility even—of trying to categorize Ellington’s music, for while they draw upon the harmonic vocabulary of jazz, their rhythmic freedom and ethos seem to belong to another world altogether: an idealized realm of memory, nostalgia, and spirituality more characteristic of the nineteenth century than the twentieth.” He hears in the former the “private quality of a prayer…an interior monologue,” while “Melancholia” is a “gentle piece edged in sorrow.” It’s also a work that’s been taken up by trumpeters. Wynton Marsalis has recorded it twice; Terence Blanchard and Marcus Printup as well.
Ellington, who introduced himself in the third person as “our pianist,” made a third trio session in 1966. It’s called The Pianist, and went unreleased until June, 1974, the month following his death at age 75. The Pianist featured the premiere recording of “The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock).” Dedicated to Rev. John Gensel, who ministered to the jazz community in New York in the sixties and seventies, “The Shepherd,” became a centerpiece of Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert in 1968. It’s heard below in film that was shot by Norman Granz for a proposed documentary on Duke’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s appearance at the jazz festival at Juan-les-Pins on the Cote d’Avur in July 1966. That’s the great Spanish painter and sculptorJoan Miro observing the Ellington trio, which here includes John Lamb and Sam Woodyard. The venue is Miro’s Fondation Maeght in St.Paul de Vence.