Jazz Column 26


The Jazz Column

by Michael Ullman


  "Poor little Swee' Pea," Duke Ellington wrote the night of the death by cancer of his fifty-two-year-old collaborator, employee and friend, Billy Strayhorn. It was May 31, 1967, and Strayhorn had been a part of Ellington's life for almost thirty years.

  They seemed, as David Hadju says in his fine new book, "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn" (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1996) made for each other, perfectly complementary, and yet they had strikingly different backgrounds and sensibilities and a relationship that had its tensions as well as satisfactions.

  Ellington was imposing, charismatic, courtly and controlled: he seemed born to his nickname. Sixteen years older than Strayhorn, and a foot taller, Ellington was so pampered as a child he liked to say that his parents didn't allow his feet to touch the ground until he was four. For the rest of his life, he seemed to be trying to make the world acknowledge that his parents were right. He was largely successful. He could charm any woman and took full advantage of his ability.

  Strayhorn's beginnings were considerably bleaker. Born diminutive and sickly to an abusive father and a well-spoken, ineffectually protective mother, brought up in poverty in Pittsburgh, Strayhorn had to transcend, even if he could not entirely escape, his background. He was tiny, as charming as Duke in his own way, and prodigiously talented, but convivial but retiring. He was also a homosexual.

  Everyone seemed to love Strayhorn, he was Lena Horne's best friend, but he remains elusive, hard to pin down. People tried. He must have had a dozen nicknames. Impressed by his strategies for eluding the limitations of his early life, his high school buddies called him "Dictionary," because of his arcane vocabulary, and "Buddha," because of his impassivity and perhaps because of his little round face. Ellington's sister Ruth dubbed him "Billums," and in the fifties, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton called him "Shakespeare," while his close friends, Dr. Arthur Logan and his wife Marian, said he was their "Itty Bitty Buddy." The nicknames that aren't frankly admiring sound a little condescending.

  Strayhorn picked out his own pseudonym: when, just out of high school, he wrote his first musical show, "Fantastic Rhythm", he had the publicity state that it was written in its entirety by "Billy Strayhorne." At various crucial points in his life, when he was asserting himself, joining or leaving Duke or making (defiantly) his own record, he would revert to this Frenchified spelling.

  Everyone seemed to love him, but the caption to his high school yearbook picture read, "It's hard to express our opinion of you." Gay when homosexuality wasn't talked about, a self-made black intellectual living in poverty, Strayhorn stood out but didn't fit in. The bright spots in his early childhood were his mother, who dreamed of a wider life and who encouraged as well as protected her son, and his paternal grandparents, whom he would visit in their relatively expansive house in North Carolina, where Billy would walk among the flowerbeds and listen to the phonograph. That music entranced him. So did the books he read at the local library, a sacred place to Strayhorn and to an early friend, Henry Herforth, with whom he talked books and music.

  At some point, he decided he needed a piano, and he set out to buy one with the money he earned selling papers and doing odd jobs for a druggist. He bought himself lessons, and took full advantage of his high school's music department.

  Strayhorn went to the integrated Westinghouse High, and compared to what we typically offer in our self-righteously penny-pinching days, he got an astounding education. He studied piano and took harmony with a teacher named Jane Alexander and eventually became the first pianist in the fifty member Senior Orchestra, in high school, playing as well in the twenty-five-piece Dance Orchestra also led by an obviously talented teacher, Carl McVicker. (Among his other students was Ahmad Jamal.)

  On March 1, 1934, Strayhorn was the piano soloist on the Grieg Piano Concerto. At eighteen, he sounded, according to McVicker, like a professional. He wanted to be a professional classical pianist.

  When he graduated, he went back to the drugstore. He might have stayed there, of course. Luckily, Westinghouse High continued to offer him opportunities. He played piano for classes and assemblies, and in 1935, Strayhorn wrote the annual revue that the graduating seniors put on. Having already composed a piece for piano and percussion, he created the Gershwinesque "Fantastic Rhythm", which an enterprising friend helped turn into a professional show that toured some black theaters in the ensuing year. (At various times, Erroll Garner played piano for the show, and Billy Eckstine sang in it.) One of the songs he wrote for "Fantastic Rhythm" was "My Little Brown Book," which the Ellington Orchestra would later record, and which Ellington and John Coltrane would immortalize as part of their onetime collaboration.

  Strayhorn went on to study briefly at a local conservatory. Hadju makes its sound as if he spent his off hours talking and playing music with friends, and, while at home, dodging his father's blows. T wo friends bought him his first jazz record, a solo piano platter by Art Tatum, and soon he was rehearsing with a trio based on the Benny Goodman trio that included the light-fingered, sweeping piano style of Teddy Wilson. By 1936, he had completed the song for which he is best known. "Lush Life" is Strayhorn's "Prufrock," a slightly affected, prematurely cynical product by a young man claiming to have known, and even to have been through, it all. Strayhorn kept the song to himself. He played and sang it at parties, insisting that it should be accompanied only by a piano. When much later Nat King Cole got hold of "Lush Life," and had it arranged by Pete Rugolo, Strayhorn was enraged, partially because Cole flubbed some of the lines and changed others. If he had been around longer, Strayhorn might have gotten used to this kind of casual mistake: singers routinely change one of the phrases, which describes certain world-weary women at bars as having "distingue traces." As often as not, the phrase is rendered "distant grey traces" instead, which makes little sense in the context and which would sound considerably less sophisticated to the composer who was a member of his high school's Cercle Francais and who would mystify his siblings by yelling, "Taisez-vous!" at them. Presumably lonely and not in a stable relationship, he wrote "Something to Live For": the lyrics suggest that the singer has everything but "something to live for, / Someone to make my life an adventurous dream."

  Strayhorn seemed stymied and stuck in Pittsburgh. The breakthrough came unexpectedly. It could have been scripted by Hollywood.

  Strayhorn was getting a bit of a name for himself playing around Pittsburgh. Then came Ellington. As Hadju recounts, the introduction went something like this. A friend of Strayhorn's was the friend of a young man whose uncle was a big numbers runner and an acquaintance of Ellington's. The young man had never heard Strayhorn but managed to get Ellington to agree to hear Strayhorn.

  The next day Strayhorn showed up at the Stanley Theater in his Sunday finest. Between shows, he entered Ellington's dressing room, where he found the master lying down. Ellington didn't get up. He didn't even open his eyes. Strayhorn sat down at the piano and played Ellington's composition "Sophisticated Lady," exactly as Ellington had just performed it, and then said he would play it his own way, changing keys and upping the tempo slightly. Ellington woke up, called the most trusted members of his band into the room, and with his hands on Strayhorn's shoulders, listened to him play " Solitude." Strayhorn then performed his own "Something to Live For," and Ellington was convinced. He gave the youngster an assignment, to write a lyric for a song. Strayhorn had it the next day.

  Then Strayhorn arranged "Two Sleepy People" for Ivy Anderson to sing with the band. A woman friend of Ellington's, Thelma Spangler, described the arrangement as "like something a dream." The dream seemed to come to a halt when Ellington went back to New York.

  Eventually Strayhorn decided to follow him. He took the directions Ellington gave him, and, probably to impress the person he hoped would be his new boss, wrote "Take the A Train," the piece that became Ellington's theme song. At the time Strayhorn worried that it owed too much to Fletcher Henderson. He may have been right; wonderful though it is, the piece is the first of many examples of Strayhorn's astonishing mimicry.

  In New York, Strayhorn found Duke, and got himself hired in what turned out to be a permanent, informal relationship, in which Strayhorn helped Ellington write, arrange, and orchestrate hundreds of pieces in return for an opulent lifestyle arranged by Ellington's managers. (It seems that no one quite knows how much Strayhorn was paid, or on what principles, mostly the Ellington organization just picked up the bills.)

  The relationship bore fruit almost immediately. Soon, Ellington turned over several aspects of his work to Strayhorn, who ended up arranging most of the vocals and the small-band dates that were typically fronted by an Ellington band soloist such as Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard or Cootie Williams.

  Strayhorn became masterful at creating what he called "the Ellington effect." But he had his own effects as well. Ellington's writing could be abrupt, dissonant. In "Concerto for Cootie" and "Koko," he changes keys in a series of thumping chords, and he adds color to the last few bars of the latter with a wildly dissonant run up and down the piano. Strayhorn's piano playing is softer, more elegant: he came out of Teddy Wilson not James P. Johnson. His best pieces shimmer. Ballads such as "Passion Flower" and "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" are openly emotional, his mood pieces smooth, sinuous and suggestive. One can hear the Strayhorn effect in the two 1939 recordings of "Grievin'," which feature Johnny Hodges in a series of casually swinging statements over the muted brass and then whole band, or in "Barney Goin' Easy," which has clarinetist Barney Bigard noodling sublimely in a subtone range over a exquisitely played series of riffs and interjections by the smooth-as-butter horns. (Both Ellington and Strayhorn cannibalized their own work when need be, compare the theme Bigard plays to the main theme to the song "I'm Checkin' Out, Goombye" and you'll notice the similarity.)

  Strayhorn brought a new elegance to the Ellington band: whether or not it was a result of his presence, the band never sounded more together, more sensitively attuned to each other and to the range of the music, than it did in the first years after Strayhorn joined the organization.

  His masterpiece may be "Chelsea Bridge," which was recorded, featuring Strayhorn on piano, in 1941. The main theme is warm, smoothly linear, and yet eerily suggestive: it is played quietly by the brass over the crooning of an unusually subdued saxophone section. With his speaking tones, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster interjects some strikingly personal comments in the bridge, and the trombones reassert themselves. It's useless to enumerate the range of effects, or even the many ways the reeds sound. It's a timeless piece.

  There would be many more, especially in the astonishingly productive year 1941, when complicated labor problems meant that Ellington couldn't record his own pieces. Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington created a whole new book for the man Strayhorn called, sometimes with irony, "Edward."

  Edward provided for Strayhorn, and gave him security. He also absorbed credit for much of Strayhorn's work and, whether wholly intentionally or not, kept Strayhorn more or less out of the public eye. When Strayhorn tried to leave him, he exuded his charm and pressure to keep him in the fold.

  Hadju tells us that Strayhorn was not actively with Ellington in the early fifties. The band suffered as a result: the revival of Ellington's fortunes and creativity came after 1956, when Strayhorn had rejoined the band.

  Clearly there was some bitterness on Strayhorn's part. But the story is complicated. Ellington took partial credit for Strayhorn compositions, but he gave Strayhorn stock in his publishing company, which meant that Strayhorn received money for many Ellington's compositions as well as his own.

  Would Strayhorn's homosexuality, to say nothing of his excessive drinking, have made it impossible for him to lead his own band successfully? Was he even seriously interested in such independence? He had his chances and he balked.

  Strayhorn did make records on his own from time to time. They made relatively little impression, partially because he tended to remake Ellingtonian pieces or play with Ellington's musicians. Still, as Hadju tells us, Strayhorn wrote shows for tap dancer friends, music to accompany a Lorca play: he had in fact dozens of personal projects, including whole shows. But how could Strayhorn have expected a show called "Rose-Colored Glasses" which parodies bopsters to be successful on the stage?

  It's difficult to judge how important these projects were to Strayhorn, just as it is difficult to judge what levels of joy the actual act of collaborating with another musical mind as fertile as Ellington's might have brought Strayhorn. Certainly in their joint interviews they seem to feed off one another, teasing the interviewer when they are not teasing each other in a way that sounds totally natural.

  Hadju tells us something of the working habits of the two men. Ellington liked to put things off to the last minute, but seemed (usually) able to pull something together when the time came. Strayhorn was more likely to be prepared. But when they were working on "Paris Blues," Strayhorn spent his nights partying, whereas Duke got up every morning and buckled down.

  Their collaboration remains mysterious, as is Strayhorn's possible emotional dependency on Ellington, and, people talk less about this, Ellington's possible emotional dependency on Strayhorn. Hadju avoids calling Ellington's interest fatherly, perhaps for good reason, but Mercer Ellington says wistfully that Duke treated Strayhorn in a more paternal way than he did Mercer. When Strayhorn became ill with cancer of the esophagus, this gourmet and heavy drinker ended up pouring his food and drink into an abdominal tap, Ellington couldn't stand the situation. He sent presents to Strayhorn on his deathbed, but wouldn't visit him.

  After Strayhorn died, his boss made two incomparable tributes to Strayhorn, the "little Swee'Pea" speech and what I consider to be the greatest Ellington record of the last decades, "And His Mother Called Him Bill." At the end of the session, when nobody was looking and few were listening, Ellington played a heart-wrenching solo version of "Lotus Blossom," his own last gift to Strayhorn.

  And Hadju notes that when a year after Strayhorn's death, a group of friends went down to the dock where they had released Strayhorn's ashes, they saw Duke Ellington ambling away in the distance. ("And His Mother Called Him Bill" is Bluebird 6287-2-RB. All of the earlier pieces are available in the Classics Records series. Many of the best Strayhorn pieces, including "Chelsea Bridge," "Isfahan," "Passion Flower," and "Blood Count" are available on the two-disc set, "Duke Ellington: Beyond Category", Smithsonian/RCA 2 755174-9000-2.)


Hadju's book is eloquent and revealing, up to a point. He's not a musicologist, and, while he has discovered many pieces and shows that Strayhorn wrote independently of Duke, he hasn't made a serious argument for the aesthetic importance of those pieces and he hasn't worked out the details of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration. What we need now is a serious musicological study of the existing manuscripts and of the existing recordings so that we can better understand the way Ellington and Strayhorn worked together.

  That book might already have been written. In his bibliography, Hadju cites the thesis of a Dutch scholar, Walter Van de Leur. Let's hope that "Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn: Their Collaboration for the Blanton-Webster Band" is being enlarged and will become available in this country. Van de Leur has already brought up some treasures, having unearthed the mostly unknown Strayhorn compositions recorded by the Dutch Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Jerry Van Rooijen on "Portraits of a Silk Thread: Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn" (Kokopelli Records 1310).

  These works range from a simple, uncharacteristic blues riff to a twelve minute suite "Pentonsilic." There are several lush ballads, including "Love Has Passed Me By Again," which Strayhorn wrote for a show he called "Rose-Colored Glasses", and which is played exquisitely by Ack Van Rooijen on flugelhorn. "Lana Turner" turns out to be an earlier version of "Charpoy," with a different bridge, and the original version of "Absinthe," named "Lament for an Orchid," is found here as well.

  "Portrait of a Silk Thread" has a sinuous melody stated by a Dutch alto saxophonist who sounds remarkably like Johnny Hodges. It has its bittersweet moments, as when the trombone takes over the lead and plays over tightly muted trumpets in a passage that prefigures, as Van de Leur points out, Gil Evans and the cool school. Thanks partially to Hadju, Strayhorn is in the news. But let us not forget earlier tributes to the man, including Joe Henderson's wonderful "Lush Life" (Verve 314-511-779-2) and Fred Hersch's equally attractive " Passion Flower" (Nonesuch 79395-2).

  When in the late fifties, the great bebop pianist Tommy Flanagan was getting ready to make his first LP as a leader, he decided he'd like to dedicate it to Strayhorn compositions. Then one day, he told me, he was walking along the streets of Manhattan when he ran into Strayhorn. Strayhorn didn't know the young pianist but when he heard his plans, he turned around and brought Flanagan to his publishers and loaded him up with sheet music. Flanagan's record company balked at the project, though, so he didn't get to record his tribute until the 1975 "The Tokyo Recital" (Fantasy/OJCCD-737).

  In 1992, Red Baron Records brought out its "Lush Life" (Red Baron AK 52760), most of which consists of 1965 studio recordings by Strayhorn leading a small band and playing solo or accompanying singer Ozzie Bailey. It has two versions of "Passion Flower," one with Ellington playing the opening solo and one with Strayhorn, and it has the wonderful "U.M.M.G." Still I imagine the key reason many people will want to hear this disc is Strayhorn's own vocal performance of "Lush Life." He has an amateur's voice, but just listen to him pronounce "distingue."

  Finally, as a musical accompaniment to Hadju's biography, Verve has issued "Lush Life: The Billy Strayhorn Songbook" (Verve 314 529H-908-2), fifteen performances by various musicians. Verve has included Sarah Vaughan's virtuoso performance of "Lush Life," but also Joe Henderson's "Isfahan," Stan Getz's "Blood Count," and the great Ben Webster's "Chelsea Bridge" in which he wails over some very stringy strings. Strayhorn is the pianist on Johnny Hodges' "Your Love Has Faded" from a long out-of-print Hodges record. I was also pleased to see the difficult-to-find "Three and Six," also played by Hodges, here, and the Cecil Taylor-Steve Lacy "Johnny Come Lately." Oscar Peterson plays a wonderfully chaste (for him) "After All."

  Then there's Ella, the late Ella Fitzgerald, who recorded "Something to Live For" as part of the series of songbook albums put out by Norman Granz on Verve. This one was of course dedicated to Ellington who showed up at the sessions in regal good form, but without the arrangements he was supposed to have done.

  Luckily Strayhorn had written new arrangements of "Day Dream," "Take the A Train," and others. There wasn't enough material. Ella wanted to walk out, and Granz was understandably upset, as it was difficult to get Fitzgerald and Ellington together. Billy Strayhorn talked her into staying.

  As bassist Jimmy Woode told Hadju, "Ella and Billy had a rough time...They were perfectionists. They were accustomed to planning and having the work fine-tuned to perfection. The idea of faking your way through 'Chelsea Bridge' by humming along was terribly difficult for them to accept."

  Leaving aside whether Strayhorn was unaccustomed to working in this way, he'd had practice with Duke, Ella finally consented to hum along. Her instincts were right. She sounds sublimely clear and confident on the Strayhorn arrangements such as "Day Dream," and sounds like a fifth wheel going "oohh" on "Chelsea Bridge." Perhaps to fill out the date, and perhaps to make up for it, Ellington and Strayhorn cobbled together their "Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald" from existing compositions, including Strayhorn's "All Heart." The piece comes with spoken encomia by Duke and with "piano accoutrement" added by "William Strayhorn." "(Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook" is available as Verve 837 035-2. This three disc set has the dates with the Ellington big band and small band sessions featuring, again, the sublime Ben Webster.)

  Her instincts were usually right. Ella Fitzgerald had a fifty year career as one of the best-loved singers in America. Shy and often stage-shy, she deserved every bit of glory. Her career began famously when she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater and was discovered by drummer-bandleader Chick Webb. She was recording in 1936: she had her first hit in "A-tisket, A-tasket" from 1938, the first of many novelty items she sang with the Webb band. She was barely twenty, and much of her style was intact: she had a bright, girlish voice, seemingly perfect enunciation, and a buoyant sense of rhythm. She managed to project pure joy, even when working with the dubious material doled out to the "girl" singers of the day. By the end of the thirties, as we hear on "Imagination," she was added character to her charm, varying her basic tone with a hint of grain as she went high, singing wistfully and stretching out a bit. ("Imagination" is on "Ella Fitzgerald: The Early Years Part Two", GRP/Decca GRD-2-623.) A fter the war, she emerged as a star who could sing a fetching ballad at any tempo, scat in a boppish manner, and improvise with any horn player. Still, I like best the more contained Ella Fitzgerald, the Ella we hear on the songbooks, or on individual sessions such as "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie" (available on a compact disc, Verve 835646-2, and on a stunning audiophile LP, Classics V6-4053), "The Intimate Ella" ( Verve 83938-2), "Like Someone in Love" (Verve 314 511 524-2) and "Ella Swings Lightly" (Verve 314 517 535-2). Her fans have been served well recently by audiophile companies. I'll just mention the ebullient "Ella and Louis Again" (Mobile Fidelity MFSL-2-248), in which the two most charming people in jazz sing "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and other classics. Her death was e xpected, but it remains difficult for her fans to realize, remember that I'll never see Ella Fitzgerald, her left hand cupping her ear, her eyes half-closed, scatting a chorus of "I Got Rhythm" ever again.

  No one's going to replace her, but there are fine singers around, including pianist/ singer Diana Krall, who calls her gritty tribute to Nat King Cole "All For You" (Impulse MPD-182). It's played by a drumless trio whose instrumentation, piano, guitar and bass, imitates Cole's own. Seemingly most comfortable at slow to medium tempos, she's a lot funkier than Cole on "Gee, Baby Ain't I Good to You." Krall doesn't have an opulent voice: she's an expressive singer nonetheless, adding a bit of brass to "If I Had You," and then resigning herself to solitude in a whisper. She's her own perfect accompanist, and a forceful, unaffected soloist.

  Tributes are in the air. The powerhouse Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez has made a thrillingly original album dedicated to Thelonious Monk, "Panamonk" (Impulse IMPD-190). Perez, who was introduced in this country by Dizzy Gillespie, is one of the most rhythmically powerful, rhythmically ingenious, pianists around. It must be his training in Latin music. His stop-and-go title tune is worthy of Monk himself in its tricky opening chorus. Then listen to his wacky accents and ineffable groove on "Hot Bean Strut," or his other originals. He's a young master, a virtuoso soloist who is constantly in touch with the complex rhythms he hears all around him.

  There are all sorts of ways to play Thelonious Monk, as it turns out, and contemporary musicians are trying them out. A classical as well as a formidable jazz pianist and a composer of large-scale works, Donal Fox initiated a series of duets with a live date featuring saxophonist Oliver Lake ("Boston Duets", Music and Arts CD-732). With his gracefully fluent technique, Fox doesn't seem ideally suited to Monk's spiky music. He makes it work for him nonetheless on his new disc "Ugly Beauty" (Evidence ECD 22131-2), which features David Murray in a gently questioning version of the title tune and an equally musing "Round Midnight," which Fox introduces with a charmingly oblique, dreamy rendition of Dizzy Gillespie's famous introduction. The disc is filled out with originals including the jagged "Golden Ladders."

  In a recent column, I have spoken of the wonderful Eric Dolphy. Dolphy died in 1963, much too soon, after a brief career in which he made a lasting impact by taking solos with wide skipping lines, jagged rhythms and unexpected intervals that somehow made perfect sense. He seemed to be offering a way for alto saxophonists in particular to avoid imitating Charlie Parker phrases, and yet he loved Bird. Others loved this gentle, unassuming, strikingly intelligent man, and saxophonist Oliver Lake has made a striking homage to him in "Dedicated to Dolphy" ( Black Saint 120144-2), concentrating on the repertoire Dolphy worked out with Mal Waldron and Booker Little.

  Finally, two more Monk tributes and a pair of big band discs and a deserving guitarist. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was one of Monk's earliest, to say nothing of most dedicated, fans. In the late fifties, Lacy had a band that played nothing but Monk. In the eighties, Lacy travelled with pianist Mal Waldron. The duet played their own compositions, and both men are wonderful writers, and always included a bit of Monk. "Live at Dreher Paris 1981, Round Midnight" (hat ART CD-2-6172) is the first of two sets that hat ART will issue from this recording date. It's an inspiring set, witty, alert, powerful at places, and without a wasted or showy note. I'll also recommend "Five" (Black Saint 121276-2) by trumpeter Dave Douglas, one of the most interesting younger players in what we used to call the avant-garde. "Five" is a series of tributes: to Monk, but also to Woody Shaw, John Zorn, and Steve Lacy. This group features Douglas with violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Drew Gress, and drummer Michael Sarin, starting with the impulsive rush of "Invasive Procedure." Douglas hasn't merely thrown together a band here, he uses their sounds, the quick pizzicatto of the violin, the sliding bowed notes possible on the cello, the resonant bass. This music makes sparks: it also makes sense.

  So does the writing of Maria Schneider, a Gil Evans disciple whose interest in sonorities continues a line from Ellington-Strayhorn through Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans' own writing. Schneider's "Coming About" (Enja-9069 2) is boldly expressive, beautifully recorded, exciting in a variety of ways. Avoiding the clichés of big band writing, the slamming brass, the churning saxes, she's made an exquisite, unsentimental "Love Song from Spartacus," a mysterious "El Viente." Like Evans, Schneider has a way of floating sonorous melodies over a rapidly moving drum beat. The music seems to be playing out on two different planes.

  The other big band music I've been listening to seems to come from another world, not merely another time and country. The British bandleader Lew Stone had one of the most popular bands of the thirties in his dear little isle. Now Claves Records has issued a three disc collection of his dance music, "A Tribute to Lew Stone: The Legendary Monseigneur Band, London 1932-1934" (Claves CD 50-9507/9). It's not hot jazz exactly, not even when they play "Tiger Rag." Stone led his mostly jolly group in well-known numbers, covering many of the American jazz hits of the day, from "Nagasaki" to "Miss Otis Regrets." The band featured one of the most popular musicians of the day, vocalist Al Bowlly. This collection has its charms.

  On a more contemporary note, I recently heard guitarist Mark Elf with the Jimmy Heath quintet. He's in his thirties and has played with Dizzy Gillespie and others. "The Eternal Triangle" (Jen Bay Jazz 0002) is only his second disc as a leader. I'd pick up this set just to hear the band: Jimmy Heath on saxophone, the venerable Hank Jones on piano, Ray Drummond, bass, and drummer Ben Riley. But there's also Elf's beautifully focused sound, his fluent bop style and his streak of knotty lyricism that allows him to reharmonize Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" in an utterly convincing way, and then emerge to take a brightly flowing solo. If only he could have played it for the Duke.

Michael Ullman

(This article has been published in Fanfare Magazine
It is reproduced by permission of the author 2006-10-08.)