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A Duke Ellington Songbook

MSR Jazz MS1617





1. Come Sunday

2. Imagine My Frustration

3. In A Sentimental Mood

4. Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me

5. Prelude To A Kiss

6. Don't Get Around Much Anymore

7. Sophisticated Lady

8. I'm Beginning To See The Light

9. Solitude

10. Meditation

11. Heaven

12. Almighty God Has Those Angels

Danielle Talamantes - Vocals (tracks 1-9, 11, 12)

Henry Dehlinger - Piano

Duke Ellington was one of the great American composers of any genre and is indisputably the most important composer in the history of jazz, especially in the big band idiom. It is significant that Ellington's preferred description for his work was 'American music'. He not only wrote songs especially for classically trained singers like Kay Davis, a coloratura soprano, but also became renowned for his forays into the realm of spiritual music. So, for instance, three live Sacred Concerts were performed between 1965 and 1973, the second of which, in 1968, featured three of the pieces to be found on this album, namely Meditation, Heaven and Almighty God Has Those Angels. Swedish soprano Alice Babs sang Heaven and Almighty God on that occasion. Ellington believed that the voice could serve as an instrument so there are passages in a number of his compositions which were wordless. From time to time they surface on the disc under review here. A multitude of jazz musicians have recorded Ellington's music, apart from the definitive versions that his own orchestras produced over a number of decades. Yet his songs continue also to be performed by artistes from the classical world. This recording brings together an international opera singer, in soprano Danielle Talamantes, and the classical pianist Henry Dehlinger. The couple have collaborated before, notably on the critically acclaimed Canciones españolas album. This is Dehlinger's debut as a jazz arranger. He is responsible for the arrangements on six of the twelve tracks.

On listening to this disc, I was reminded of another soprano, Dawn Upshaw, and her album of Rodgers and Hart songs, recorded twenty years ago, with pianist Fred Hersch in support. It shares some of the same characteristics. A superlative voice and sensitive accompaniment, for instance, blessed by exceptional material on which to work. This is not to say that there are no reservations for the jazz lover. I'll return to these later. A couple of tracks struck me as particularly good. In A Sentimental Mood has Talamantes in fine form, displaying the requisite degree of tenderness as well as an appealing jazz inflection in her voice. Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me prompts the thought that Talamantes would work wonders with Ellington's I've Got It Bad And That Ain't Good, omitted from the choices on the album. She is well supported by the empathetic Dehlinger who, on his one solo track later, gives a satisfying interpretation of Meditation. Come Sunday, the opening track, one of Ellington's sacred songs, has a fascinating history, having made the journey from the Duke's 1943 jazz symphony, Black, Brown And Beige, to the pages of the hymnal of the United Methodist Church in the States. Ms. Talamantes reveals that she possesses a lovely voice and a powerful one, too. The arrangement works well also. Imagine My Frustration is a song for a wallflower. There is some real 'down-home' piano from Dehlinger and Danielle emotes passionately, confirming that she possesses one heck of a voice.

Prelude To A Kiss is known as a challenging piece by performers and proves to be less suitable to Talamantes' voice than other material on the disc as well as being the least jazz-oriented. The lyrics, incidentally, were written by Irving Gordon, composer and lyricist of the Nat King Cole classic Unforgetable. Don't Get Around Much Any More is better with a distinct swing from both singer and pianist. Three Ellington standards follow, Sophisticated Lady, I'm Beginning To See The Light and Solitude, all of them acceptable without being particularly exciting (though Dehlinger's thoughtful piano does enhance Solitude). The last two tracks are of a different order. Heaven with its snatch of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and an absolutely sublime moment from Danielle's voice lives up to its title. Almighty God Has Those Angels with oblique shades of St. James Infirmary on piano at one point, plus an intelligent vocal reading of the theme by Talamantes.

Those who admire the work of the duo will, I am sure, appreciate this latest offering from them. There can be no doubting their quality. It is good, always, to hear Ellington's music, in whatever context, and to appreciate its beauty as well as its diversity. I suspect that anyone who is into 'crossover', that is, mixing or exploring different genres, will enjoy this CD. I wonder, however, whether that old cliché 'less is more' won't apply when it comes to listeners from the jazz community. Talamantes has a beguiling voice but also a powerful one. I found that her impact lessened somewhat when she gave that power free rein, especially when ascending to the upper register. Obviously you can take the girl out of the opera, but you can't take the opera out of the girl! Restraint can be a virtue when singing jazz. It certainly isn't missing from her repertoire as she shows us at other places on this interesting album.

James Poore

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