“Duke Ellington: Live at the Whitney” is an important Impulse!
label release, if for no other reason than it emphasizes
Ellington’s skills as a recitalist. According to an essay by
Jazz authority, Dan Morgenstern, this was the last of only
three such concerts given by Ellington (1899-1974) and
recorded at the Whitney Museum of American Art in
New York City on April 10, 1972.
For the last 12 tracks of this CD, Ellington was joined by
bassist Joe Benjamin (1919-1974) and drummer
Rufus Jones (1936-1990). Unfortunately, this 55-minute
disc did not contain the entire concert. However, what I
did hear were performances of many songs that might
also be featured in one of Ellington’s Big Band concerts,
and were similarly structured. These included a medley
of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Prelude to a Kiss,”
“Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me,” and “Caravan,”
as well as other popular favorites, such as
“Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Satin Doll.”
Hearing these songs, along with the Samba-influenced
“Amour, Amour” and “Soul Soothing Beach” in trio format
or solo piano renditions, enabled me to appreciate
Ellington’s special pianistic abilities, even if they weren’t
on a “world-class” level. Due to an unerring sense of
rhythm, emphasis on main melodies and unabashedly
romantic harmonies, he’s revealed as the same “Duke”
that we would have heard leading an orchestra. But it
was nice to just hear him alone at the piano.
When Benjamin and Jones did accompany Duke, it was
discreet. In fact, Benjamin’s bass was almost too far
back in the mix. Rufus Jones was allowed a small solo
on “Kixx,” the second to last song. Nevertheless, this
recital belonged to Duke Ellington who convivially
chatted with his audience, just as he would have while
leading his orchestra.
As expected from Impulse! recordings, the sound was
good, despite the aforementioned slight of Joe Benjamin’s
bass in the balance. In essence, this was a solo recital
with subtle bass and drum accompaniment for the later
half of the disc. I believe it’s definitely worthwhile for those
who wish to focus on Duke Ellington’s abilities as a pianist.