Generally when jazz heads ponder the fruitful nearly three decade relationship between Duke Ellington and pianist, composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn, the evergreens “Lush Life” and the big band signature “Take the A Train” come to mind – so often that they have been covered hundreds of times.
Working with his all-star quartet, veteran pianist John DiMartino finds amazingly unique ways to re-imagine these gems for his visionary collection Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. The little heard, youthfully poetic lyrics to “Lush Life” zing the heartstrings via a stunningly poignant vocal by Raul Midon over a gentle ballad arrangement. The ensemble toots, chugs and swings powerfully, with loads of improvisational magic, on “Take the A Train.”
The generous 14 track collection, however, finds Di Martino and company (tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist Boris Kozlov, drummer Lewis Nash) interested in more than taking well-covered standards to a higher level. From the frisky opening roll through “Johnny Come Lately” through the romantic bossa dreamscape of “Star Crossed Lovers (Pretty Girl)” and on to a sensitive solo piano take on “Lotus Blossom,” the quartet seems most interested in expansively covering an enduring era in history, finding inventive and stylistically eclectic ways ways to bring long overlooked gems from one of jazz’s great partnership to a new generation.
Another track that should compel everyone’s attention is the lush, moody piano/sax duet of “Blood Count,” Strayhorn’s last finished piece which he wrote as he was dying in 1967. Though its in the middle of the tracking, it serves as a beautiful requiem for one of jazz’s late great masters.