Early on, you never heard much piano from Duke Ellington, a grievous thing.
It was only in the twilight of his career that this American jazz master regularly consented to taping some shows where his impish wit at the instrument could be heard front and center. Perhaps the best is this belated Impulse release — a Monday night show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, and one of the last trio records Duke ever made.
Ellington is joined by Joe Benjamin at the bass, while Rufus Jones plays drums. But Duke, after being crowded out for so long by brilliant sidemen like Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Clark Terry, is all that you’ll hear.
Included is an exciting mixture of the then-new and expected old favorites — featuring a darker, more complex “Sophisticated Lady/Solitude,” the simply rocking “C Jam Blues,” a richly moving “Mood Indigo” and an album-closing take on “Satin Doll.”
Even with the big band, Ellington was apt to open the show with an inventively conceived medley to capture the attention of his audience, and this performance was no different: The staunchly romantic “Prelude to a Kiss” stands in high relief against the hearty soul of Ellington’s jungle-period “Black and Tan Fantasy” — only to be followed by a swinging section from “Do Nothing ’til You Hear from Me” and then the signature from “Caravan.”
More interesting, even, than these bits of expected Ellingtonia are brave turns through tracks like the never-before-released “Soda Fountain Rag” (a muscular tribute to the stride pianists of Duke’s youth), “The Night Shepherd” and “Kixx” (from Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert) and two tracks from “Togo Brava Beach” (one of his last extended pieces) — including the Thelonious Monk-ish “Amour, Amour” and a sweetly swinging “Soul Soothing Beach.” “Lotus Blossom” and “Flamingo,” so closely associated with Ellington’s late longtime musical collaborator Billy Strayhorn, work as final farewell bids — and make you keenly aware that the Duke too would pass just two years later.
Yet, this is more celebration of Ellington’s sweeping contributions, in a still-remarkable and revealing small-band setting, than eulogy. By the time he launches into “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” Duke has charmed even this staid art-gallery group into joining the singalong. They then snap to the beat, lost in a swinging reverie, to “Dancers in Love.”
Ellington, even stripped of the bright blast of his justly famous band, made music of exuberant consequence. I think it’s a lost part of his legacy.